Full Circle: One Child’s Journey

Published 7:24 am Monday, January 22, 2018

In his crib on a hot Thursday morning in August of 1952, little Jeff Neve awoke with a fever. His parents suspected teething. This could certainly have been the case for a fifteen-month-old baby. But the doctor who made a house call later that day was puzzled by his symptoms. By Sunday, Jeff’s back had begun to stiffen and on the fourth day he had gone from being a thriving baby boy to a child whose entire left side was permanently paralyzed.

Terror struck the Neve home as their once happy, contented lives suddenly imploded. “What has happened to our baby,” a shocked Ray and Audrey wondered, “and would the same devastating disease also strike his four-year-old brother?” But, there were no answers. None at all. And in those four days, the lives of the Neve family were forever changed.

In America, the first diagnosed case of polio was recorded in Vermont in 1892. Six decades later, the 1950’s epidemic hit like a scorching fire, leaving devastating scars across the stunned nation.

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In a single year, Jeff along with 57,628 others, were struck down. Twenty thousand of them were left paralyzed. Like Jeff, those with spinal poliomyelitis would never walk normally again. The others, with bulbar poliomyelitis, would never breathe, speak or swallow normally again. Some would spend the rest of their shortened lives in iron lungs. Jeff would, one day, when he was old enough to understand, be grateful he was not one of them.

Panicked parents, Ray and Audrey drove their son to Rochester where he would stay in a crib set up in a hallway as there was no space in a room. For the next seven days their baby was under strict quarantine and they could only peer at him through a glass partition. It staggers the imagination to think how painful it must have been for his parents to not be able to hold and comfort their suffering baby. And how even more devastating it must have been for Jeff to wonder where his parents were and why they had left him in such a strange, frightening place when he so needed them.

After a week in which no other member of the family became ill, Ray, Audrey and their older son were considered noncontagious. At last, with the longest seven days of their lives behind them, they rushed to Jeff’s side. The truth was, however, that even though they were reunited, they knew with certainty that from that moment on there was no protocol to follow, no cure in sight and that nothing could be done for their little boy.

Jeff was hospitalized for the next nine months. Finally the day came when his parents could bring him home on weekends. Three months later he was released to go home three times a week. Then after a year in Rochester, he was allowed to stay home, returning to Rochester only for doctor appointments. Those regular appointments ended when Jeff was 20.

During this time, Jeff, as a two-year-old toddler and the polio poster child for Mower County, learned to walk with braces and wee tiny crutches made for the smallest of the polio patients. Inexplicably he walked with them backwards, scooting down the hospital halls as fast as he could scoot. Quite honestly, no one cared which direction he went just as long as he was doing it on his own! As he grew his crutches were regularly replaced with longer ones.

When Jeff was four, he was put in a full body cast in order to keep his spine straight. Back then the road between Austin and Rochester was in poor condition. To this day Jeff’s face contorts in a painful grimace as he vividly remembers the agony he felt as he was bounced around inside his stiff, unyielding enclosure.

At age six, the doctors “clipped” the cords in his left hip in order to give Jeff some flexibility. Then at age 12, steel pins were put into Jeff’s left knee because his right leg was growing normally, but his left leg—now considerably shorter—was not. The procedure worked and four years later when Jeff was 16, both legs were the same length. Eventually, Jeff would have a total of thirteen operations on his legs and back. He has only to look at the numerous permanent scars there to remind him of those painful times.

Medical treatment was expensive and Ray and Audrey were consumed with worry over the mounting hospital bills. Then, as if out of nowhere, two guardian angels appeared. Otto Baudler was one. Phil Goldberg, chairman of the March of Dimes, was the other. Phil made certain that the polio foundation paid for everything. In contrast, Blue Cross, their health insurance, did not pay one cent as they regarded Jeff’s surgeries as cosmetic! To this day, knowing they could never have paid the hospital, Ray and Audrey shake their heads in wonder over the blessing of these two men.

Ray (now 95) and Audrey (89) were ideal parents for Jeff. They never held him back but instead encouraged him to try whatever he wanted to do. Interestingly the neighborhood kids considered Jeff as one of the gang. When they played baseball, Jeff hit the ball while one of the other team members ran the bases. He also managed to play kick ball, basketball and football where he was touched instead of tackled.

Someday you may catch of glimpse of a tall, handsome, blond man riding his recumbent bike throughout the Austin southwest neighborhoods. Look again and you’ll see the pedals are cranked with his hands. The bike was obtained only a couple of years ago and has provided Jeff with a freedom he has never known. Wave him down and I guarantee you’ll find one of the kindest, friendliest and charming men you’ll ever meet. That’s exactly what I did!