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Mary Free Bed memories

by Amanda Larsen

John Butler has spent his life working with kids. A middle school teacher for 33 years and a football coach for 40 years, John has influenced many lives in Caledonia, Mich. John’s care and compassion for the children in his life is a direct result of the fact that he knows what it’s like to need care.

In the fall of 1948, John contracted polio. He was 5 years old when he was admitted to Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids. John fought to survive the disease and even celebrated his sixth birthday.

He was admitted to Mary Free Bed on December 13, 1948. On his arrival, he was put in isolation to avoid the spread of polio. This was hard and lonely. It definitely helped that John was allowed to go home for two days at Christmas in 1948.

John was inpatient at MFB for 9 months. His treatments were focused on relaxing and stretching the muscles in his legs that were damaged from the disease.

He recalls a procedure where the nurses applied hot wool packs to his legs, “A big tank of hot steaming water was wheeled next to my bed. Woolen pads were dipped into the hot water. They were lifted out with tongs and put through a wringer attached to the side of the tank. They wrapped them around each leg and used large safety pins to secure them for several hours each day.” The nurses would follow up the procedure with physical therapy to stretch the tight leg muscles.

John recalls much from his time at MFB in the late 40s, when many children sought care due to the polio outbreak. He remembers 8-10 children sleeping in a ward together. John said, “I can remember some of my wardmates by name!” They were wheeled in on stretchers to a large hall for meals as many were bed-ridden.

The children only saw their families on Sundays. John said, “I often looked out my second-story window onto the parking lot to wave good-bye to my family and watch them drive off.”

The hospital staff worked to keep the children’s spirits up. “We went to the Shrine Circus when it came to town. We were all on stretchers, but MFB found a way to get us there,” John recalls. “I also remember Dr. Alfred Swanson coming in during Christmas time dressed in his cowboy outfit and singing us songs while playing his guitar.”

When John was discharged from MFB after 9 months of therapy, braces and crutches, he could walk!

“I remember my mother having to do daily resistant and stretching exercises on my legs. She was very persistent and never missed a session of exercise,” John said. John was even promoted to the first grade, even though he missed much of kindergarten.

As a result of the polio, John has undergone many surgeries on his legs over the years and still walks with a slight limp. John’s first-hand knowledge of the difference good care can make in a child’s life has changed his family, his school and his community. John Butler has translated his own childhood experiences into good for many others.

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