Polio Survivor William Skidmore

William Skidmore, 86, a polio survivor, shows his atrophied left leg, a remnant of the disease.

Bozeman resident William Skidmore can remember the summer of 1944 like it was yesterday.

He was 15 at the time and working outdoors, mowing grass, weeding and planting flowers for the “princely sum” of 50 cents an hour. He was saving to go to college, which would cost him $1,600 a year.

Then he got sick. Skidmore, now 86, first started feeling ill — vomiting, headaches, aches and pains — toward the end of a vacation spent surfing on the New Jersey shore.

He soon got worse. He started experiencing “such weakness, it’s almost like paralysis. I couldn’t cough or sneeze, or feed myself for a long time,” he said.

Despite the precautions, from closed swimming pools to boarded-up movie theaters, Skidmore had contacted polio.

“It was an epidemic,” said his wife, Trica Skidmore.

“It was a continuing scare,” agreed William, who was surprised his parents allowed him to go to the ocean.

William spent six months in isolation in a packed hospital, only seeing his family through a window, and another six months learning to walk again. Besides hours of painful physical therapy a day and wrapping his swollen, painful joints in cloths soaked in hot water, treatment included racing around the hospital to rebuild atrophied muscles — first in a wheelchair, then on crutches.

In the hospital he saw friends die from the disease, and others become confined to iron lungs — machines to help people breathe after they had lost control of their lungs.

“The machines looked like big tin cans large enough for a person to lie in with a hole in one end for the head to stick out,” William described.

He was lucky enough to almost fully recover, except for his left leg. Polio often leaves victims with no long-lasting effects, and about 72 percent of people infected never realize they are carrying the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, however, about 1 in 25 people with polio develop infections in the brain or spinal cord, which can permanently damage the nerves that control muscles. About 1 in 200 are permanently paralyzed. In William’s case, he was left with a permanently disfigured left leg.

Despite his hardships, however, William never let himself get depressed.

“I did the best I could,” he said. “You make the adjustments you need to make, and you enjoy it. I don’t remember ever feeling bitter or angry.”

Complaining didn’t help matters, and in some ways he is thankful to have caught the disease.

“I had new friends when I got back to school ... and one of them happened to be (his wife) Trica’s cousin,” he said.

“She lived in Massachusetts, and I was in New Jersey. We didn’t have any connection at all until I became friends with her cousin and met his family,” William explained. “One day he said he had a date and his mother wouldn’t let him go unless he got a date for Trica, so that’s how we met.”

That was in 1948, when William was 23 and Trica was 19. They were married four years later and have remained together ever since.

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