Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio


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In a riveting story of courage and hope, Peg Kehret writes about months spent in a hospital when she was twelve, first struggling to survive a severe case of polio, then slowly learning to walk again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807574584
Publisher: Whitman, Albert & Company
Publication date: 01/01/1996
Series: A Concept Book Ser.
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 47,440
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.53(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt


The Diagnosis

My ordeal began on a Friday early in September. In school that morning, I glanced at the clock often, eager for the Homecoming parade at four o'clock. As a seventh-grader, it was my first chance to take part in the Homecoming fun. For a week, my friends and I had spent every spare moment working on the seventh-grade float, and we were sure it would win first prize.

My last class before lunch was chorus. I loved to sing, and we were practicing a song whose lyrics are the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. Usually the words "Give me your tired, your poor ..." brought goosebumps to my arms, but on Homecoming day, I was distracted by a twitching muscle in my left thigh. As I sang, a section of my blue skirt popped up and down as if jumping beans lived in my leg.

I pressed my hand against my thigh, trying to make the muscle be still, but it leaped and jerked beneath my fingers. I stretched my leg forward and rotated the ankle. Twitch, twitch. Next I tightened my leg muscles for a few seconds and then relaxed them. Nothing helped.

The bell rang. When I started toward my locker, my legs buckled as if I had nothing but cotton inside my skin. I collapsed, scattering my books on the floor.

Someone yelled, "Peg fainted!" but I knew I had not fainted because my eyes stayed open and I was conscious. I sat on the floor for a moment while my classmates collected my books.

"Are you all right?" my friend Karen asked as she helped me stand up.

"Yes. I don't know what happened."

"You look pale."

"I'm fine," I insisted. "Really."

I put my books in my locker and went home for lunch, as I did every day.

Two days earlier, I'd gotten a sore throat and headache. Now I also felt weak, and my back hurt. What rotten timing, I thought, to get sick on Homecoming day.

Although my legs felt wobbly, I walked the twelve blocks home. I didn't tell my mother about the fall or about my headache and other problems because I knew she would make me stay home. I didn't want to miss that parade.

I was glad to sit down to eat lunch. Maybe, I thought, I should not have stayed up so late the night before. Or maybe I'm just hungry. As soon as I eat, I won't feel so weak.

When I reached for my glass of milk, my hand shook so hard I couldn't pick up the glass. I grasped it with both hands; they trembled so badly that milk sloshed over the side.

Mother put her hand on my forehead. "You feel hot," she said. "You're going straight to bed."

It was a relief to lie down. I wondered why my back hurt; I hadn't lifted anything heavy. I couldn't imagine why I was so tired, either. I felt as if I had not slept in days.

I fell asleep right away and woke three hours later with a stiff neck. My back hurt even more than it had earlier, and now my legs ached as well. Several times I had painful muscle spasms in my legs and toes. The muscles tightened until my knees bent and my toes curled, and I was unable to straighten my legs or toes until the spasms gradually passed.

I looked at the clock; the Homecoming parade started in fifteen minutes.

"I want to go to the parade," I said.

Mother stuck a thermometer in my mouth, said, "One hundred and two," and called the doctor. The seventh-grade float would have to win first place without me. I went back to sleep.

Dr. Wright came, took my temperature, listened to my breathing, and talked with Mother. Mother sponged my forehead with a cold cloth. I dozed, woke, and slept again.

At midnight, I began to vomit. Mother and Dad helped me to the bathroom; we all assumed I had the flu.

Dr. Wright returned before breakfast the next morning and took my temperature again. "Still one hundred and two," he said. He helped me sit up, with my feet dangling over the side of the bed. He tapped my knees with his rubber mallet; this was supposed to make my legs jerk. They didn't. They hung limp and unresponsive. I was too woozy from pain and fever to care.

He ran his fingernail across the bottom of my foot, from the heel to the toes. It felt awful, but I couldn't pull my foot away. He did the same thing on the other foot, with the same effect. I wished he would leave me alone so I could sleep.

"I need to do a spinal tap on her," he told my parents. "Can you take her to the hospital right away?"

Dad helped me out of bed. I was too sick to get dressed.

At the hospital, I lay on my side while Dr. Wright inserted a needle into my spinal column and withdrew some fluid. Although it didn't take long, it was painful.

The laboratory analyzed the fluid immediately. When Dr. Wright got the results, he asked my parents to go to another room. While I dozed again, he told them the diagnosis, and they returned alone to tell me.

Mother held my hand.

"You have polio," Dad said, as he stroked my hair back from my forehead. "You will need to go to a special hospital for polio patients, in Minneapolis."

Polio! Panic shot through me, and I began to cry. I had seen Life magazine pictures of polio patients in wheelchairs or wearing heavy iron leg braces. Each year the March of Dimes, which raised money to aid polio patients and fund research, printed a poster featuring a child in a wheelchair or wearing leg braces or using walking sticks. The posters hung in stores, schools, and libraries — frequent reminders of the terrible and lasting effects of polio. Everyone was afraid of polio. Since the epidemics usually happened in warm weather, children were kept away from swimming pools and other crowded public places every summer because their parents didn't want them exposed to the virus.

How could I have polio? I didn't know anyone who had the disease. Where did the virus come from? How did it get in my body?

I didn't want to have polio; I didn't want to leave my family and go to a hospital one hundred miles from home.

As we drove home to pack, I sat slumped in the back seat. "How long will I have to stay in the hospital?" I asked.

"Until you're well," Mother said.

I caught the look of dread and uncertainty that passed between my parents. It might be weeks or months or even years before I came home. It might be never; people sometimes died from polio.

That fear, unspoken, settled over us like a blanket, smothering further conversation.

When we got home, I was not allowed to leave the car, not even to say goodbye to Grandpa, who lived with us, or to B.J., my dog. We could not take a chance of spreading the deadly virus. Our orders were strict: I must contaminate no one.

"Karen called," Mother said when she returned with a suitcase. "The seventh-grade float won second prize." I was too sick and frightened to care.

Grandpa waved at me through the car window. Tears glistened on his cheeks. I had never seen my grandfather cry.

Later that morning, I walked into the isolation ward of the Sheltering Arms Hospital in Minneapolis and went to bed in a private room. No one was allowed in except the doctors and nurses, and they wore masks. My parents stood outside on the grass, waving bravely and blowing kisses through the window. Exhausted, feverish, and scared, I fell asleep.

When I woke up, I was paralyzed.


Paralyzed from the Neck Down

My mouth felt full of sawdust; my lips stuck together in the corners. As I opened my eyes, I saw a glass of ice water on the table beside my bed. It was exactly what I needed, but when I tried to reach the water, my right arm did not move.

I tried again. Nothing happened. I tried with my left arm. Nothing. I tried to bend my knees so I could roll on my side, but my legs were two logs, stiff and unmoving. I was too weak even to lift my head off the pillow.


A nurse ran in.

"I can't reach the water," I said. "There's something wrong with my hands. I'm thirsty, but when I try to get the glass ..."

"Hush," she said. She lifted the glass and slipped a straw between my lips. "There you are. Have your drink."

I took only a sip. "What's wrong with my arms and legs?" I asked. "Why can't I move?"

"You have polio," she said, as if that explained everything.

"But I could move before I fell asleep. I walked in here. I had polio then, and I could still move."

"Don't try to talk. Save your energy." She held the straw to my lips again, and I drank the glass of water. "I'll be right back," she said when I finished.

She returned quickly, with a doctor. While he examined me, the nurse held a clipboard and made notes.

"Move your right hand," the doctor said.

I tried; my hand did not move.

"Try to wiggle your fingers."

My fingers lay like an empty glove.

He put his hand around my wrist and lifted my arm a foot off the bed. "Hold your arm in the air when I let go," he said.

I could feel his hand on my wrist, but when he let go, my arm flopped down. I felt like the Raggedy Ann doll I'd left on my bed at home.

He pulled back the sheet. I wore a short hospital gown rather than my own pajamas. I did not remember putting it on, and I wondered who had undressed me.

"Try to lift your left leg."

I closed my eyes and concentrated. My leg remained on the bed.

"Now try to lift your right leg."

My right leg stayed where it was.

"Can you wiggle your toes?"

I could not.

Each time the doctor asked me to move a part of my body and I could not move it, my terror increased. I could talk, I could open and close my eyes, and I could turn my head from side to side on my pillow, but otherwise I could not move at all.

The doctor ran a wooden tongue depressor up the bottoms of my feet. I wanted to kick it away, but my feet wouldn't budge.

He placed his hands on my ribs. "Intercostal expansion is poor," he said.

I felt as if I needed a translator. "What does that mean?" I asked.

"The muscles which expand the rib cage when you breathe are weak," the nurse explained.

The doctor said, "Diagnosis is acute anterior poliomyelitis. The patient is paralyzed from the neck down."

I did not need a translator for his last sentence.

The doctor left, saying he would return in an hour to check me.

"We'll keep you comfortable," the nurse said, "and I'll tell your parents about the paralysis."

"Are they here?" I asked. "I want to see them."

"I'm sorry," she said. "You're in isolation. No visitors are allowed." She started for the door, turned, and added, "We can't risk spreading this disease."

She left me alone with my terror.

Don't think about being paralyzed, I told myself. But how could I think of anything else?

The nurse had forgotten to pull the sheet back up, and the skimpy hospital gown did not even reach my knees. I wanted to cover myself, but I couldn't.

Feeling vulnerable and exposed, I grew more panicky. What if the hospital caught fire? How would I get out?

The doctor's words played over and over in my mind like a broken record. "The patient is paralyzed from the neck down. The patient is paralyzed from the neck down."

I wanted Mother and Dad. I wanted to be well again. I wanted to go home.

When the doctor returned an hour later, I felt short of breath.

"The patient's nostrils are flaring," he said to the nurse. I wondered if he was describing me or a horse.

For two days the fever stayed at one hundred and two, and it became increasingly difficult to breathe. Mostly, I slept, waking often because of muscle spasms or because my back and neck ached so badly. A nurse gently massaged my shoulders, back, and legs, which helped temporarily. I was given aspirin for the pain.

My voice developed a nasal twang. I sounded like a bad tape recording of myself.

The nurses told me that my parents sent their love. They were waiting nearby and wanted to see me, but it was against the hospital rules. I thought the rules were foolish. Mother and Dad had already been exposed to me at home and in the car when they drove me to the hospital, so why couldn't they visit me now?

Doctors and nurses checked me frequently and urged me to drink something. I drank water, but it became harder and harder to swallow. I wanted only to be left alone so I could sleep. When I slept, I did not hurt.

On my third day at the Sheltering Arms, the doctor said, "The patient may need a respirator."

"University Hospital?" the nurse said.

The doctor nodded.

"I'll arrange for an ambulance," the nurse said.

That conversation got my attention, and I roused myself enough to ask, "What's happening?"

The doctor put his hand on my shoulder. "There is more than one kind of polio," he said. "One is spinal polio. It's the most common type and causes paralysis in the patient's arms and legs."

"That's what I have?" I asked. "That's why I can't move?"

"Yes. You have spinal polio. Another kind of polio is respiratory; it causes difficulty in breathing."

I was acutely aware of how hard it was for me to breathe. Was he telling me I had two kinds of polio?

"Because you have respiratory polio, too," he said, "we're transferring you to the University of Minnesota Hospital. We're afraid your lungs may not continue to function on their own."

What was he saying? If my lungs quit working, I would stop breathing, and if I stopped breathing, I would die. Is that what the doctor meant — that I was going to die? I desperately wanted my parents.

The doctor continued: "The Sheltering Arms is a rehabilitation center for polio patients who are trying to regain the use of their muscles. It is not equipped to deal with cases as critical as yours. University Hospital has respirators, and I want you to be near one. If your lungs can't function on their own, the respirator will help. It will breathe for you."

I didn't know what a respirator was, but if it would help me breathe, it must be okay. At least it seemed I was not going to die right on the spot.

"You'll be taken by ambulance to University Hospital," he continued. "I hope you'll be back at the Sheltering Arms soon."

I said nothing. I had not wanted to come to the Sheltering Arms in the first place. Why would I be in any hurry to return?

This move was bad news — it meant I was so sick that I needed a hospital with more emergency facilities than the Sheltering Arms had. I could not sit up. I could not move my arms or legs. It was hard to breathe and I was burning with fever and I was far more frightened than I had ever been in my entire life. I not only had polio, I had two kinds of polio — spinal and respiratory.

"I'll call your parents," the doctor said softly, patting my arm. "They can meet you at University Hospital."

I was transferred from the bed to a gurney and wheeled out a door where an ambulance waited. The cool outdoor air brought me out of my feverish stupor. I was surprised to see that it was dark out; I had lost all track of time.

This is backward, I thought. I walked into the hospital by myself and now, three days later, I can't move at all. Hospitals are supposed to make you get better, not worse.

While the attendants opened the ambulance doors and prepared to load me in, I heard a buzzing sound. A mosquito was flying around my head.

Zzzzt. Zzzzt. I turned my face from side to side, hoping to discourage it from landing on me, but the buzzing grew louder and then abruptly stopped. I could not swat the mosquito or brush it away, and it bit me on the cheek.

As we drove through the streets of Minneapolis, people in cars looked curiously in the ambulance window. I longed to pull the blanket up over my head, but I could not move my hands. Instead, I shut my eyes and pretended I was dead. That seemed a fine joke on those who stared, and gave me great satisfaction.

With my eyes shut, pretending to be dead, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was in a different hospital bed.

"Where are my parents?" I asked the nurse.

"You're in the isolation ward. No visitors are allowed."

"But the doctor at the Sheltering Arms called them. He told me they would meet me here."

She glanced at my chart. "They were here when you were admitted," she said. "They signed the papers."

"Why didn't someone wake me up?"

Angry tears filled my eyes. I had slept through my chance to see my parents.

No one except the doctors and nurses could come in my room. They wore masks, gowns, and gloves that were sterilized or destroyed after they cared for me.

The next day I had another spinal tap. That afternoon, a new doctor stood beside my bed. "There is more than one kind of polio," he said.

I opened my mouth to interrupt and tell him I already knew all about it, but before I could say anything, he said, "The least common kind is called bulbar polio."

Bulbar? That was a new word. I braced myself for more bad news.

"Bulbar is the most serious form of polio," he continued.

"Worse than spinal or respiratory?" I didn't see how that was possible. What could be worse than being paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe properly?

"Bulbar polio impairs the patient's ability to talk or swallow."

I whispered my question. "Do I have bulbar polio?" I knew the answer; why else would he be explaining this? But I had to ask.

His answer was simple and direct. "Yes."

I could think of nothing to say. I had three kinds of polio.

"There's a call button next to your hand," he said, indicating the cord with a button at the end that lay on my bed. Then he glanced at my chart. "You can't use it, can you?"


Excerpted from "Small Steps"
by .
Copyright © 1996 Peg Kehret.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1The Diagnosis11
2Paralyzed from the Neck Down18
3An Oxygen Tent and a Chocolate Milkshake29
4"You Can't Burn My Bear!"39
5Hot Packs46
6Torture Time52
7Star Patient Surprises Everyone60
9Sunday Visitors78
10Happy Thirteenth Birthday91
11Dancing the Hula, Popping a Wheelie99
12A Disappointing Trip109
13The Great Accordion Concert119
14Good-bye, Silver; Hello, Sticks130
15Plans for a Pageant135
17A Present for Dr. Bevis156
18Back to School165
Special Thanks177

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Small Steps 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 84 reviews.
L-dog More than 1 year ago
Small Steps is my new absolute favorite book. It is the first interesting biography i've read ever, i could not put it down even when mom told me American Idol was on. You will just get lost in this world where you feel terribly sorry for Peg yet ready to know what happens next. My favorite chapter is the one where Peg's mom is so caring that even though it's against the rules she gets a chocolate milkshake for Peg after her surgery. She goes through a lot of angry nurses to give her this treat but if it will make her Peg happy she is willing to suffer. It is a sweet and emotional, funny also sad book and a great read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book looks so boring but since I had no other books to read, I decided to check it out. Thank goodness I did!! Amazing, it makes you be sooo thankful for what you have and that they have shots for polio! I recommend this book to all ages! So please read it, it is heartwarming!
Guest More than 1 year ago
When i first read this book, it was for a school assignment, and it was the only book on the shelf that we could get extra credit on, since it was a nomiee. My first though was 'this could be depressing', but my teachers insisted on me reading it. As i read it, i got caught up in the story. It was one of those books that just pull you in so you can't put it down. She was such a strong person, i don't think i would have been able to surive that. The book showed great courage on the part of a 12 year old girl. I am soo glad i read it.
Veggiechiliqueen More than 1 year ago
In our modern age of vaccinations, it seems inconceivable that in 1949, 42,033 cases of polio were diagnosed. It was a disease without a vaccine or antidote that meant excruciating pain, followed by extensive physical therapy assuming that the patient didn't die from complications. There are three main variants: spinal polio, which causes rapid paralysis of the arms and legs (generally asymmetrical), bulbar polio, which causes difficulty breathing and swallowing (and frequently requiring the use of iron lungs as breathing muscles and mechanisms are greatly weakened), and respiratory polio, a combination of the above two. Peg Kehret was twelve years old when she contracted respiratory polio; she was the only victim in her small Minnesota town that year.

Peg recounts her terrifying illness in a very matter-of-fact yet gripping narrative. Paralysis set in rapidly, and she had a fever of 102 for nearly a week as her muscles weakened, requiring her to use an oxygen tent. But Peg was lucky; once her fever breaks (aided by a contraband chocolate milkshake), her recovery is much more rapid than her fellow hospital and rehab roommates. Even though Peg is nearly a teenager, there are small poignant touches of the remnants of childhood; her brother Art sent her a teddy bear that had to be burned once she left the polio ward, and her mother recommended that she donate her old books and toys to the children's polio ward. Peg resists, recalling happy memories with her old books and toys, and is dismayed to find that her parents have redecorated her old room as a surprise.

Peg is an engaging narrator who brings a distant era to life through radio dramas such as The Lone Ranger and the simplicity of a time where books and friendships filled our hours instead of electronics. Her rehabilitation is tempered with humor and spirit; no self-pity here, only the desire to become the best she can be. The Sister Kenny method of polio treatment is described in detail, along with physical and occupational therapy exercises. Peg has a crush on Dr. Bevis, a handsome doctor who makes her feel special by painting her toenails when she's still in intensive care, and promises him that she'll return to walk for him. She makes friends with several other girls recovering from polio, including the bitter Alice, who's lived at the rehabilitation center for ten years after her parents couldn't care for her. The girls are brought together by their shared experiences as polio survivors, and Peg is apprehensive about rejoining her school and the outside world.

The novel is brought full-circle by the sad mention that Peg, along with her former roommates, suffers from post-polio syndrome; around 25% of childhood polio sufferers develop additional symptoms decades after the initial infection, including muscle weakness, fatigue, or paralysis. After working so hard to overcome polio, she's certainly not giving in now. There are also vintage photographs of the author and her roommates scattered throughout. A marvelous introduction to polio's debilitating effects and the power of positive thinking on recovery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My mom brought me this book and I learn that poilo is not counght u cant die from it even.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is awesome!! I know you here that in every review, but seriously READ IT!!! It gives alot of info. about polio in fun ways! When my teacher 1st told me we were reading it I was like really an autobiography?? I wasn't that excited but we read it and I loved it !! Well bye
MissT4thGradeClass More than 1 year ago
Last year our class read a book called Small Steps the Year I got Polio. Then I read it again! You really need to read this book. It's about a girl named Peggy she ends up getting polio. But not just one type, three types! She got sick one day in school turns she has polio! My favorite part in the book is when Peggy meets Tommy. Tommy is her first roommate Peggy gets .Do you think she'll survive? Will the polio ever go away? If you like to cry during a book, read this book. After every chapter you'll need a new tissue box!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this is an awesome book for everyone to read from fast readers people who hate books or just have problems reading it is a good biography to read and i would recommend this book to anybody it is also a good book for a classroom required book i am also a person who doesn't like reading much but i also couldn't put this book down that is how good it is
Me__42 More than 1 year ago
¿Now an iron lung loomed besides m bed, hoses hanging like gray tentacles¿a gray octopus read to swallow me any time.¿ (Kehret 30-31). This quote is from Small Steps: The Year I got Polio. This book is written by Peg Kehret. Ms. Kehret wrote this book because she had a really bad case of polio and lived through all of it. This book is a first hand book about what happened to her. Her friends and family wanted her to write a book about what had happened to her. Anyone who wants to know about or how it¿s like having polio should read this book. The book title is significance to the book because she as re-learning how to walk with walking sticks and on her own. I really didn¿t connect with anyone in the book; however I did watch a video on polio last year at skills. Anyone and everyone should read this book it¿s a really good story. I think that the ending was good; it leaves you thinking about other things. I would give this book at 4 because if someone didn¿t know medical words it might be hard for them to know what¿s going on in some parts of the book. I think over all the book is really good at keeping your attention through-out the book. The story was at the time right before the big polio break out. I think I did learn what it was like to have polio. In the book it talks about her roommates would sing at night and there is a part talking about how she had to move 75 marbles with her toes to make her muscles stronger. The kids were really young in this book and the nurse and doctors just try to keep the positive.
BoundTogetherForGood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very good book, written for a young adult. Really helps you to understand what it was like for the author to face a life with polio
abbylibrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When Peg was 12 years old she got polio. At first she was paralyzed from the neck down, but she gradually got better and eventually learned to walk again. This is a very accessible account of one child's battle against a debilitating disease.
Mrs.Becker on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorite books. I would highly recommend it.
gabbyleow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Small Steps is a wonderful autobiography and simply heart-warming. I couldn't put it down and was just so fascinated by how it was like to be diagnosed with polio. I would definitely recommend it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book made me laugh,cry,smile,frown and overall made proud to have an amazing role model like peg. This book is ONE OF A KIND! This was the type of book for me where i would read this at night and wake up a better person. This book is one of my favorites of all time! I love it so much and have read it about twenty times and it's still not enough. I would say this book is for about ten and up! This book thought me to be brave,be you,treat others the way you want to be treated,love one another and last but not least: you have a voice. I LOVE THIS BOOK and i hope u do too! Peg, you are like Wonder Woman i love you!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read this book for years and is over all my favorite book. I definitly recommend this to anyone who is into the medical genre. JUST THE BEST BOOK YOU WILL EVER READ! : ) <3
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
WOW that was an amazing story I read. I got to see peg karet at school.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Small steps is sooooooo captivating!! It had me laughing,crying, smiling, and all other emotions, jumbled into one book. Small steps is an amazing story that everyone should read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Earlier, I complained that the book was fiction. I was wrong.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love how it gives you every little detail you need to know. It keeps you interested at all times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AMAZING BOOK, it has so much detail!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is such a inspiring book if you like it then read the book breathing room. Back to small steps...its a great book for all ages (mostly 4-8graders(but you get the point:D))
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a amazing story. I loved every minuete of it and didn't want it to end. Worth every penny.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read it it will give you a wonderful feeling