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Taking life a step at a time

Underwood webThere have been unsettling news reports in the past several months about polio vaccinators in Nigeria and Pakistan. Suspicion of their intentions has led to many of them being killed, tortured or held for ransom as they worked to immunize children against the ever increasing threat of that disease.

The word “polio” has become just another word for most of the population of this country. But for those who were affected by its crippling effects, polio became more than a word, it became a part of their life.

An NBC Health report tells of Martha Ann Lillard’s concern for the children who are being denied vaccinations.

Lillard, who lives in Oklahoma, was just five years old in 1953 when she became paralyzed by polio, and she has spent the last six decades in an 800-pound iron lung.

“She worries that people in the U. S. don’t remember the panic that polio caused,” the article said.

Jo Ann Underwood McCoy, of Marlinton, knows all too well what it was – and is – to live with polio.

McCoy was born in 1952 on Beaver Creek, one of 13 children in the Denver and Dollie Bevel Underwood family. In 1956, at the age of four, she contracted polio, and life changed for her and for her family.

“By the time I was four years old, my parents noticed that I was having a lot of problems with my legs,” McCoy said. “I would go to get a drink of water and collapse on the floor.”

An article with the headline “Polio” appeared in The Pocahontas Times that year and read as follows:

“This week, Pocahontas County had its first polio case for the year of 1956.

Jo Ann Underwood, age five years, daughter of Denver Underwood, was removed from her home on Beaver Creek to Marmet Crippled Children’s Hospital early this week by the local chapter of National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the County Health Department.

So far, this is a very pleasing report to the citizens and our local County Health Officer Dr. R. R. Pittman, who gave much time to the immunization program during the past year by immunizing hundreds of school and pre-school children in the county.”

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was established January 3, 1938 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself an adult victim of polio. That program later became known as The March of Dimes.

“When they diagnosed Jo Ann with polio, the whole house was quarantined,” McCoy’s sister, Virginia Underwood Dendy, said. “We didn’t know what it was, but we couldn’t go to school until we got the okay.”

It was never determined as to why McCoy was the only one in the family to fall victim to the disease.

“We used to play in the creek,” McCoy said. “Maybe my immune system was weak and more susceptible to the germs.”

The quarantine was lifted and the other members of the family were able to resume a somewhat normal life. But it was not normal, as McCoy was four years old and four hours away from home in the Marmet hospital. The stay at that hospital lasted a year and three months, but it provided the care and therapy she needed to return home and to move on with her life.

McCoy wrote about her experience several years ago. She tells of her days at the hospital and how she recovered enough to return home.

“My therapy consisted of hot whirlpool baths and exercises… Then I was given braces and crutches. The lower part of my body was paralyzed, and it was very difficult learning to walk with them. My first braces covered me from my waist down. The shoes were connected to metal bars which extended up and down the leg. They had brown leather straps with buckles. The crutches were metal, and my arms fit into rings that were attached to them. You could not use crutches the way you see people use them when they have a sprained ankle. You had to put one of the crutches out first, then move the impossible leg. Then you would repeat the other side.”

With the help of therapists, McCoy eventually accomplished two steps, and with great effort was finally able to walk across the room.

Although the therapy and daily routine were tiring, it was not all work and no play for the children. McCoy said there were treats and special events such as puppet shows.

McCoy has a scrapbook that contains newspaper clippings about her time at the Marmet hospital.

One photo shows McCoy holding a hat while young children dump a bucketful of pennies into it. “The delighted donors,” who lived on Red Oak Street, were identified as Barry Krebs, Stephen Bupp, Claudia Krebs and Nancy Perry. The caption read: “The children earned the money by rounding up old pop bottles in their neighborhood during the past two months. The pennies will buy puzzles and other therapeutic games for Jo Ann and her friends at the hospital.”

Another photo shows McCoy being held by Mrs. Dee Tincher, chapter president of the Phi Gamma Chapter of Beta Sigma Phi Sorority, when the group made its annual visit to deliver candy-filled baskets to the children.

McCoy recently obtained a photo which shows her being introduced to Governor Cecil Underwood. The photo was in the archives of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

McCoy returned home with a brace and instructions for continuing therapy. Those instructions included filling bags with sand for weights and soaking her legs in water “as hot as she could stand.” To regain strength in her legs McCoy would lie flat and lift a five pound weight with her leg, then 10 pounds, and eventually 20 pounds.

“My parents were faithful in seeing that I received my therapy every day for a year,” she said.

At the age of six, McCoy started attending school.

“I had to walk a mile to the bus and back home every day,” she said. “I was always the last to get anywhere.”

Although McCoy may have been the “last to get anywhere,” she says her parents never let her use her illness as an excuse.

“They didn’t let me get out of work,” she said. “Cornfield, garden, hayfield – I was there.”

McCoy has been other places, as well. She has been to the Bahamas and back stage at the Grand Ole Opry.

She credits her recovery to The March of Dimes and the people who support the organization, the patience of the doctors and nurses and the care of her parents.

McCoy’s story offers insight into the benefits of a fundraiser that many school children of that time will remember.

The March of Dimes Drive, when each student was given a card that had slots just the right size for holding dimes.

The challenge for the student was to fill the slots, while the challenge for those served by the March of Dimes was to learn to walk again.

McCoy is a survivor – a trait she learned as a child.

She worked for Hanover Shoe for eight years, and for the Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia, until 2011, when she began to experience symptoms of post-polio syndrome. Today she works from home collecting and selling gemstones and jewelry.

She has two sons, Paul David Cutlip and Chad McCoy. Along with the joy of being a mother came another challenge, as well. Chad was only six months old when McCoy’s husband, Freddie, passed away at the age of 22.

Through the years McCoy endured six major brain surgeries and sustained injuries in an auto accident when she was hit by a drunk driver, and the low immune system that made her susceptible to polio has caused her “to catch everything,” she said.

McCoy was never confined in an iron lung, but she saw other children who were. In spite of what life has thrown at her, she continues to move forward and is bright and cheerful.

“I consider myself to be very lucky,” she said.

Jaynell Graham may be contacted at

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