Polio survivor Ina Pinkney reflects on life’s pains and pleasures
My earliest memory is the sound of pain. Mine.
Strips of wool cut from a St. Marys-brand blanket, which my father had to find on the black market since it was wartime, were lifted from a pot of boiling water, wrung out, and wrapped around my thin, flaccid leg.
Next, dry strips to cover the wet ones and finally a piece of oilcloth wrapped around the entire leg. Then the interminable wait for the swaths to cool before being unwrapped and my tender pink skin massaged with cocoa butter.
My father said I didn’t cry. He did.
On Labor Day 1944, I was 18 months old. My father put his outstretched arms over my crib, but I couldn’t stand. I tried and fell back down. The instant he touched my forehead and felt the high fever, my father knew that the polio epidemic that was sweeping New York City had come to Brooklyn.
My father gathered me up and took me to see Dr. Suna, who had an office and apartment in our building. Holding me tightly across his midsection, the doctor did a spinal tap, rushed to his office laboratory, and confirmed everyone’s worst fear: polio.
We headed for the hospital in Dr. Suna’s car. My mother was pregnant with my brother, and my cherished grandpa, who had cancer, was living with us, so she stayed home. When my father and Dr. Suna saw the polio ward with children left alone and parents allowed to visit only for an hour once a week from behind glass partitions, they agreed that I would be taken home and cared for there with whatever precautions were known.
When the flu-like symptoms and fever subsided, they called the March of Dimes. They gave me a long brace on my paralyzed right leg, and everyone resolved to “wait and see.” A few months later, I lost the ability to move my foot upward, and the brace was changed to a cast to “help the drop foot.” All the while, my parents and Dr. Suna struggled with the status quo. Nothing could be done, and they were all heartbroken.
My father read that Sister Elizabeth Kenny was in New York City. She was an Australian nurse, called Sister for her military service, who had treated polio outbreaks at home and determined that the “hot pack” treatments she prescribed were helpful. She said the muscles were in spasm and needed to be stretched, and that the wet heat followed by gentle exercise would help. Many in the American medical community, however, dismissed, ignored, and diminished her and her novel notions of physical therapy.
My father called every hotel in New York City to find her, and when he finally did and spoke to her assistant, he was told that Sister, so as to avoid any more difficulties with the doctors, couldn’t treat a patient outside of a hospital. Dejected, my father hung up. He sat in a chair by my crib and watched me all night. The next day he called again and said he would do anything to get Sister to see me. She acquiesced.
My father borrowed a car, drove to Manhattan, and picked up a large woman with a large hat. Sister Kenny sat in the front seat; her assistant sat in the back. During the ride to our home, Sister Kenny asked for details about the onset of my illness and what had been done since. My father said she sat silently with her jaw set, as if steeling for battle.
When my father parked at the curb in front of our apartment building, Sister said, “The child’s doctor is here, yes?” When my father said he was not, Sister said, “I won’t leave the car until he’s here.” He raced to find Dr. Suna, who then escorted Sister Kenny into our apartment.
My mother opened the door, greeted them, and led them down the long hallway to the kitchen where she had covered the table with blankets and towels. I was sitting on the table with my back to the wall, my leg with its cast in front of me. Before Sister greeted me, she asked her assistant for scissors. She proceeded to cut off the cast and hurl it across the kitchen toward the garbage can. “This is not a broken leg!” she shouted. “This is polio!”
That was the beginning of the hot pack treatments with the strips of wool drawn from boiling water. Once a day, sometimes twice. I know I didn’t scream, but I recall the agonized sound of my own muffled voice. After three months, I was mobile. My right leg was shorter and my right foot two shoe sizes smaller than they had been. I walked with a compensated gait, stepping more on the ball of my foot, so you couldn’t really tell how much shorter my leg was.
I rarely played with other kids since I couldn’t run or skip or jump. Mostly I sat with adults at the gathering spot under the big tree in front of the building. The women would bring kitchen chairs outside, form a circle, and talk. I became a committed listener and learned adult conversation sitting under that tree. If and when I wanted to say something, I knew it had to be cogent so the women would pay attention to me.
"… I would have to make my own rules, imagine my own life, and forge my own path. Was I always successful? No. But I tried, and I achieved a lot. "
What I heard: Movie theaters and pools were closed to stop polio from spreading. Having a disability was a fate worse than death. People went to the hospital to die. By the time I was 6, I knew a lot.
My sense of otherness became clearer at that age. I was confused by being taunted. I was confused by the look on faces of adults. I was confused by my body. I was already mourning the loss of being whole.
I was told that I was going to go to the hospital. Knowing what I did, I thought they were taking me there to die. At 6 you cannot have grief for a life not lived, so I accepted that I’d got six of whatever this was. The man they talked about the other day got 49. I was not afraid.
Ludwig Bemelmans’ book Madeline saved me. She was a schoolgirl, one of a dozen girls in a French boarding school. She was fearless and completely different than all the other girls. While they were all frightened by the tiger in the zoo and cowered together, Madeline went right up to the cage.
Madeline went to the hospital and came out with a scar on her belly. I went to the hospital and came out with one on my leg. When I woke up from the operation, I thought they had made a mistake. I was still alive and had this strange second-chance feeling. It was right then that my admiration for Madeline kicked in. She was my hero and role model. Like her, I would have to make my own rules, imagine my own life, and forge my own path. Was I always successful? No. But I tried, and I achieved a lot.
If only I could have written to my 6-year-old self to tell her what her life would be. Here is what I would have said:
My dear Ina,
You began your life in the hardest way possible: polio at 18 months, which led to a childhood being marginalized, ignored, ostracized, and bullied. You will learn your first lesson when you understand that you are kinder than those around you. Your father will be the one who instills in you that you only have to get up one more time than you fall. And he will always be there to part another Red Sea of Impossibility.
You will marry Bill Pinkney, who will sail around the world solo. After 36 years, when you understand his best life will be spent on the sea and yours on land, you will divorce. You will each leave the marriage better people than when you began it — and neither of you will ever forget why you loved each other.
Your life will read like a novel and seem a dream to many. You will hang out with Maya Angelou in Greenwich Village, wipe the brow of Mikhail Baryshnikov in the wings of a Chicago theater, and dance with Fred Astaire at a party given in his honor. You will go skydiving, whitewater rafting, and scuba diving, and you will ski the Alps and the Rockies on your one good leg. You will be fearless, Ina, but never reckless, and you will always see yourself as the causative agent in your story, never the victim.
You will try hard to find your place in corporate America. You will have 21 jobs and get fired from 19 of them, but you will learn something from each one that you will need — and use — later.
You will bake your first cake at age 37 and find a strange and exciting joy in that. You will build a baking kitchen, teach yourself how to bake, and create a dessert catering business in 1980, when such a thing does not exist. You will open your restaurant in 1991 at age 48 and realize there is great power in being underestimated.
Ina’s Kitchen will change the landscape of breakfast forever in Chicago. You will feed Julia Child and Wolfgang Puck and experience great kindness from Anthony Bourdain. Celebrities and politicians will flock to Ina’s, as will many Chicago chefs, who will grow before your eyes and make Chicago a world-class food destination. Ultimately you will be known as an entrepreneur way ahead of her time, the woman who spearheaded the smoking ban in Chicago, co-founded the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, and concocted a recipe for success by combining compassion, exacting standards, and sheer willpower.
After a 33-year career that will bring you much happiness and heartache, you will find your exit strategy and pivot to new and exciting ways to use your knowledge and experience. You will write a memoir/cookbook (Ina’s Kitchen: Memories and Recipes from the Breakfast Queen), be the subject of an award-winning documentary (Breakfast at Ina’s), and write a monthly column for the Chicago Tribune (“Breakfast with Ina”). Companies will bring you to conferences to speak about breakfast — and you will finally get to eat breakfast!
For many years you will try with all your might to fit in and, like most polio survivors, pass for normal. That is until the late effects of polio take their toll and you must find new ways of getting around: first with a brace, then a cane, then a walker, and now a scooter and wheelchair. But your life will still be a source of delight. What you will love the most are the relationships that will sustain you, especially with the members of Rotary you will meet each time you are invited to speak and share your story. You will treat each meeting as an honor, and you will accept that honor because you will feel the grace of all you have tried to accomplish and are no longer 6 years old and afraid that you don’t belong.
Breakfast virtuoso Ina Pinkney speaks regularly to Rotary clubs about polio.
This story originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.