Gaston & Catawba

‘The Miracle of Hickory' comes to life in exhibit

It's been nearly 65 years since “The Miracle of Hickory” emergency polio hospital made headlines across the country.

Many of the people who were treated or worked in the hospital – which went up as quickly as the epidemic that necessitated it – are gone now.

In the decades since people from all over North Carolina traveled to the hospital for care, polio has been nearly eradicated from the globe.

But a new Hickory History Center exhibit on the hospital makes the familiar story fresh again, like something that could happen today.

“The Miracle of Hickory: The 1944 Emergency Polio Hospital,” shows how a community – faced with a raging epidemic and no hospital beds to place its sick in – built for them a facility that became a model polio treatment center with the lowest death rate of any hospital like it in the country.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (which later became March of Dimes) gave the hospital its famous name, said Melinda Herzog, director of the Catawba County Historical Association, the history center's operator. The foundation worked to provide care for polio patients and to find a cure for the disease.

Built over 54 hours in northwest Hickory – partly by volunteers who risked their town being stigmatized as a polio virus breeding ground – the hospital treated patients from up and down the Catawba River.

The Catawba's waters likely contributed to the spread of the virus, Herzog said, because in those days, many people emptied their privies into creeks that feed into the river.

The exhibit illustrates the ways the medical community erred in treating the paralyzing disease (doctors believed then that flies might be spreading it, so they recommended screening cribs that babies were put in), but mostly how it succeeded in handling a serious outbreak and minimizing polio's effects on patients.

Across the exhibit from one of the screened cribs kept in local homes sits one of the famous “iron lungs” that used pressure to help patients with paralyzed diaphragms to breathe.

The care that patients got from medical professionals and from the surrounding community made the ordeal easier, Herzog said.

Anytime hospital needs appeared in local newspapers, the public responded, donating garden produce, toys and table fans – to keep away the flies. Local civic clubs gave money and medical equipment.

Some of the best doctors in the country came to North Carolina – including Dorothy Horstmann, a Yale University epidemiologist who built personal relationships with patients' families to get samples for her research into polio's causes.

Herzog said rumor blamed Horstmann for spreading the disease and that she braved rocks thrown at her car to make rounds to homes.

The hospital was such a phenomenon that photographers from Life magazine, MGM and Paramount came to record it. One Life picture shows a thin girl enduring one of the spinal taps used to diagnose the disease.

Lessons can still be learned from the epidemic, Herzog said. “The importance of getting children immunized cannot be emphasized enough.”