The Second Quarantine

Left: Patty, unable to walk, being held by her Uncle Eugene shortly after her discharge from the hospital.
Right: a photo of Framingham Union Hospital, where Patty was treated.

Amanda Wylie

Left: Patty, unable to walk, being held by her Uncle Eugene shortly after her discharge from the hospital. Right: a photo of Framingham Union Hospital, where Patty was treated.

Amanda Wylie, Writer

The rocking chair moves back and forth, back and forth, while the elderly woman perched atop stares blankly out the window. The world around her seems to be crumbling, as panicked people struggle to cope with the quarantine induced by COVID-19. But the woman, Patty Sears-Hutton, isn’t panicked. After all, the isolation seems all-too-familiar, a constant reminder of her first quarantine.

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Alone in her uncle’s backyard orchard, five-year-old Patty scrambled up a ladder, eager to snag a newly ripe apple. Suddenly, her legs refused to function, sending her tumbling to the ground. Dazed and confused, Patty dragged her tiny body all the way back to her uncle’s doorstep.

It was abundantly clear that something was wrong. Patty was taken to the hospital that night to receive some devastating news: the little girl had contracted polio. Doctors were unsure how to handle her at first; after all, she was only the 21st polio case in Massachusetts. One thing was apparent though: Patty was paralyzed from the waist down and would likely never walk again.

Months of quarantine followed, the days marked by crippling loneliness and no medical improvement. Cut off from the outside world, Patty longed for connection. She wasn’t even allowed to see her older sister. Thanksgiving rolled around, then Christmas, then Valentine’s Day, but Patty was still confined to her hospital room.

Everything changed on March 12, 1955, when the results of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine trial were announced. Salk’s vaccine was licensed later that day, paving the way for its widespread distribution. Patty’s mother was leery of the brand new vaccine, but her father insisted that they do anything and everything to save their daughter. Squeezing her father’s hand, Patty mustered the strength to down the putrid oral version of Salk’s remedy.

Slowly, her condition began to improve, a miracle that had seemed impossible when she was diagnosed. Upon Patty’s discharge from the hospital, her father immediately focused on the next miracle: teaching her to walk again.

Every day, Patty’s father would come home from work and place the girl on the kitchen table, leading her through difficult physical therapy exercises. After months of relentless pushing, she finally regained control of her legs.

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Today, in the midst of another quarantine, Patty’s experience seems all the more relevant. She prays not only for a vaccine, but for coronavirus patients to have supporters as fierce as her father. For now, she stares out the window at an altered world, her chair rocking back and forth, back and forth.