Character: Abbey Bartlet
Summary: Every dream has to start somewhere.
AN: Much of the background information came from the wonderful and extremely readable book Polio: An American Story, by David M. Oshinsky (Oxford University Press, 2005), which I highly recommend to anyone curious about the polio epidemic and vaccine trials. The Smithsonian also has a great website up here, with some terrific pictures. (Especially if you were a history major like me.)
The PA announcement at the end takes its wording directly from a press conference on April 12, 1955, announcing the results of the polio trials.
Many thanks to athena4lynn and nnaylime for their magnificent beta work.
It was a warm night in early spring, when Abbey first heard of Doctor Salk. Dad had the radio on, and Mom was helping Judy exercise her leg, the brace lying next to them on the floor.
Abbey was supposed to be doing her homework. She had a theme due on "How My Family Celebrates Easter," but she was really listening to the radio, since nobody was paying much attention to her at the moment.
"How's it going, pumpkin?" Dad called back into the kitchen, and she jumped.
"Uh, good, Daddy." Bending over, she began writing hastily. After we find our Easter Eggs we… She tapped her pencil on the table, a little nervously. This year would be different. Judy hadn't needed the brace last year. We all dress up in our best clothes and we go to church. Judy still didn't have new clothes, since everything had had to be burned, and fancy dresses just hadn't been important lately.
Mom said something, and Dad turned the radio up with his cane. Abbey tilted her head a little, to listen.
"Scientists have been working tirelessly to find a solution to this dreadful affliction, and at last we finally have a reason to hope. It is my very great pleasure to introduce to you now the foremost researcher in the National Foundation's battle against poliomyelitis: Dr. Jonas Salk."
Daddy turned the radio up a little more, shaking his head, and Mom waved a hand at him when he would have said something.
Abbey looked down at her theme, and scrawled, It's going to be just like Easter was last year. And she felt like a liar.
The theme got an A.
Before school got out for the summer, they had an assembly to discuss how to "Stay Safe, Stay Healthy." There was a filmstrip about the importance of hygiene, of avoiding exertion and strangers and strange places. It was very scientific.
Judy sat in the back row with her brace and crutches, head down, miserable. Abbey very carefully avoided meeting her gaze.
That summer was awful. It was hot and humid, and not once did Mom let Abbey go down to the swimming pool – but she shouldn't feel left out, said Mary, who lived next door.
"Nobody's allowed to go." Mary was leaning over the split-rail fence between their backyards. Ever since Judy got sick Mary's mother had been afraid to let her play with Abbey, so they talked between the fence instead when Mary's mother wasn't looking. "Even Linda Muller in the seventh grade who got it and got all the way better isn't allowed."
"Especially Linda Muller," Abbey corrected her, savagely drilling holes into the dry ground with a stick. "She got better but everyone still acts like they're going to get sick."
"Well, who knows where it comes from?" Mary pushed herself up, leaning on her arms and letting her feet dangle as she balanced. "You still don't know where Judy got it, and look at her."
"I don’t want to talk about Judy," Abbey said savagely. All anybody ever wanted to talk about was Judy, but only if Judy wasn't there.
Mary squinted down at her. "Sorry." They are both silent for a long moment, Mary watching Abbey stab at the dirt from her spot on the fence. "You afraid you'll get sick?"
Abbey picked her head up. That was the other thing everybody talked about, but usually only when they thought she wasn't listening. "I dunno." She widened the hole she was carving, unwilling to look up.
"That means you are," Mary said, and her voice was a sing-song. "It's OK to say it. I think everybody is. Don't tell Judy I said that, though."
"You're not afraid you'll end up like Judy," Abbey told her, echoing her tone. "You're afraid you'll end up in an iron lung."
Mary dropped back down to the ground. "I think you're stupid if you're not scared."
Abbey let her stick fall. "I guess I'm stupid, then."
"I think you're a liar," Mary replied, and took a step back. "My mom's calling me." She wasn't, and they both knew it.
"Fine. See you later." Abbey didn't look up from her stick.
"Yeah." Mary took another step, back into her yard. "Bye."
"Bye," Abbey echoed, a moment later. She watched Mary disappear into her house, and leaned over to pick up the stick, tracing a line in the dirt across all the holes she'd dug.
They read a lot, since walking was so much work for Judy, and there really wasn't anything else to do in the summer. Dad wanted to go away, but the store wasn't doing so well. Too many shoppers were staying home, afraid of getting sick. They couldn't close the shop, couldn't go anywhere, so they read.
Abbey asked the librarian if there were any books on polio. The librarian, a friendly ancient lady, shook her head. "They're all for grown-ups, dear. Nothing for girls."
"I want the grown-up ones," Abbey said, stubbornly, but the librarian shook her head again, offering her a nice book on Paul Revere instead. She read it, but only because there was nothing else to do. When the librarian asked her how she liked it, she smiled politely and told her it was an exciting story. Which it was. But it wasn't the one she wanted to read.
The signs for the polio vaccine trials started appearing at the end of October. Mary ran after Abbey as they walked home from school, sending papery red oak leaves up in clouds with every step. "Abbey! Did Sister Catherine tell you about the polio shots?"
Abbey shrugged. "Yeah. We got stuff to take home for our parents."
Mary made a face. "Mine are. I already asked, last night. Mom's so excited – if it works, I won't get sick." She shuffles through the leaves. "Hey, what are you dressing up as for Halloween? Mom's making me a princess costume."
"I hadn't really thought about it," Abbey admitted. Last Halloween – well, there hadn't really been much of a Halloween, last year, and Judy was still having trouble walking for long periods, so – "I don't think I'm going to go."
"Oh, come on!" Mary begged, kicking another pile of leaves by the curb. "It'll be fun! You can come with us, and --"
"Will your mom let you?" Abbey interrupted, voice quiet.
Mary grew still. "I can ask…"
"Thanks," Abbey says, stopping at her driveway. "But I'm OK. Besides, Sister Catherine said Halloween was a heathen holiday." She left Mary on the sidewalk, hurrying inside and trying to pretend she wasn't jealous.
It took her a couple of days to work up the courage to mention the polio tests to Dad. She found him at his desk, going over the books from the store, and hovered nervously.
"Hey there, pumpkin," Dad said, looking up as he turned a page. "You look like you're working on a big thought."
She took a step into the room. "I am."
Dad nodded, and moved slowly to the couch. His knee had never been right since he'd been a soldier, and he was stiff and sore most days. Judy liked to joke, now, that she and Dad were two peas in a pod. She though it was great. Dad didn't think it was as funny.
Pulling Abbey onto the couch next to him, Dad settled back. "So what's on your mind?"
She sat for a moment, back very straight, fiddling with the pleats of her skirt. "Sister Catherine was telling us about tests today."
"Time for exams already?" Dad asked, chuckling. "Really?"
"Not for class," Abbey corrected. "Tests with doctors." Dad's face got very serious, like he already knew what she was going to ask, and he started to shake his head, but Abbey barreled on ahead. "The medicine – the vaccine against polio." She pronounced it very carefully; it was a new word for her. "The doctors need to test it so they want volunteers, and they're going to do it at school, and when it works, anyone who's had it won't ever get polio."
Dad sat for a moment, and pulled her onto his lap, holding her close. "Listen, pumpkin. I know this last year has been really hard, and we haven't paid as much attention to you as we should have, with your sister so sick, but –"
"I want to, Dad!" Abbey twisted to look at him. "They need to make sure it works so they can stop the polio!"
"And if it doesn't work?" Dad asked, voice flat. "Then you'll get sick too, and maybe you won't be as lucky as Judy." His voice twisted on the word "lucky," and turned the word ugly.
"I want to," she insisted, stubbornly, and leaned forward, fully prepared to move onto pouting, and even tears if it was necessary.
Dad shook his head. "No, pumpkin. They're doctors, not God. You won't be 'volunteering' for anything, and that's final." He set her back onto the couch with a bump, and grabbed his cane, limping painfully from the room, leaving her alone and a little bewildered at how quickly the negotiations had ended.
"It's really not," she finally announced to the doorway. "I'm going to."
That left Mom. She wandered into the kitchen the next afternoon while Mom was making dinner.
"How was school, honey?"
"Fine." Abbey pulled open the silverware drawer and started counting out forks. A little good will might help her cause. "I got a B on my math exam."
"Is that the one Judy helped you study for?" Mom asked, stirring the gravy with one hand and opening the oven to check the roast with the other.
"Yes. Division." Abbey made a face. Division was not her favorite. "Sister Catherine was telling us about the polio trials."
Mom straightened up, closing the oven door with a bang. "I think your father already discussed this with you, Abigail."
Abbey turned, forks clutched in her hand. "I'm the only one in my class who hasn't brought in a slip."
"I'm sure Sister Catherine will understand," Mom said stiffly, going back to the gravy, leaving Abbey standing with the forks, mind spinning.
Abbey turned in a signed request slip the next day. She found an old note in her bookbag and carefully practiced Dad's signature until she could get it right. Sister Catherine didn't even look twice at it.
The day of the first tests didn't come around until spring. Abbey had heard the radio talking about problems with the vaccine – something about the polio not dying, which she didn't entirely understand. The smug look on Dad's face when he listened to the report wasn't quite something she quite understood either, until she overheard him telling Mom one night that they'd made the right decision in keeping her out of the trials. That made her worry a bit – what if she got caught? What if Mom and Dad were mad? It'd be worth it if she wouldn’t get sick, though. But they might not realize that right away, because they were so set on things. She stayed up most of that night, staring at the ceiling, and she was almost late to school in the morning.
Sister Catherine had to call her name three times before she realized the whole class was lined up to go to the gym, and they were all waiting for her. "Sorry," she mumbled, flushed bright red, and hurried up to take her place in the line.
While they were walking down the hall, Sister paused alongside her. "It's all right to be nervous, Abigail," she said gently.
"It's not that –" Abbey protested, and shut her mouth. There's really no good way to say I'm not nervous about the shot, Sister, I'm nervous about my father finding out that I wrote his name. "Thank you, Sister," she said, instead. What else could she say?
The nurses and volunteers lined them up and checked files to make sure everything was in order. Abbey held her breath while hers was examined, and nearly forgot to breathe again when they walked on to the next pupil, and waited for her turn, almost twitching from anticipation when Sister Catherine came to escort her over to the doctor.
It was almost anticlimactic. The doctor, a young man in a white coat, looked up as she came in. "And what's your name, young lady?"
"Abigail," she said shyly, stepping forward as the nurse handed him the syringe. "Is that it?"
"This is it indeed," the doctor – Dr. O'Connor, read the badge on his jacket -- and he held it out for her to see. Cherry-colored liquid, entirely unremarkable. She stared at it in fascination.
"That's going to keep me from getting polio?" Maybe Daddy was right. What on earth could that stuff do? Abbey shuffled her feet.
Dr. O'Connor nodded. "It will. There is dead polio in here, and when I inject it, your body's going to think it's real polio, and attack it the same way, and if it means any real polio in the future, it'll know how to fight it off." He gestured for the nurse, who leaned in with a cotton swab, stinking of alcohol, rubbing her arm. "Ready?"
And before she even had a chance to answer, it was done, one tiny drop of blood marking the spot. "That's it?" It hadn't even hurt – wait. The nurse slapped a band-aid on it, tightly. Now it hurt.
"That's it." Dr. O'Connor grinned at her. "We'll be back in a few weeks for the next round." The nurse gently started to move her off, but Abbey resisted.
"You're sure it's going to work, right?"
Dr. O'Connor knelt, frowning a little, and looked her straight in the eye. "Abigail, right?"
"We're as sure as science can be. We figured out how polio gets into the body, and what it does once it's in there, and we figured out how to isolate it, so we can pick out the important parts. And we figured out how to kill it, and then we tested it over and over again. Dr. Salk even tried it on his own children, and none of them have gotten sick." He gives her a warm smile, squeezing her shoulder. "You're a pioneer, Abigail. This is the most important thing medicine has ever done, and you're a part of it."
The nurse let out a huff, giving the doctor a dirty look, and he stood upright again. "I'll see you in a few weeks, young lady. I need to get going, or we'll get behind."
"Thank you, Doctor," Abbey murmured, letting the nurse drag her on.
"You mustn't hold up the line like that," she scolded, "We have a long line of you children and all these delays add up."
"Did Dr. Salk really give the vaccine to his own children?" Abbey asked her.
"Of course he did: don't be ridiculous. Everyone knows that." The nurse not-so-gently led her to the other side of the gym, where her classmates were gathering, with polio pioneer pins on their uniforms and lollipops in their hands. Abbey picked out a red one and got in line with the others. Sister Catherine gave her an approving nod, putting a hand on her shoulder as everyone started back to the classroom.
Dinner that night was torture: Abbey fully expected to be caught out. She'd carefully removed her pin before turning the corner with Mary, telling her that she wanted to save it, and stuffed it into her pocket. It was hiding in her sock drawer now, all the way in the back, and she picked at her food, head down.
"You're not hungry, Abbey?" Mom finally asked, leaning down to catch her eye.
"Not really," Abbey answered, honestly, biting her lip for a moment. "I'm sorry."
Mom traded a look with Dad, and for a moment they did that thing that parents do, where they have an entire conversation without actually speaking. "Why don't you go on ahead, then. Go start your homework."
"Really?" Abbey almost dropped her fork in shock. "Uh – OK." She slid from her chair, hesitating in confusion.
"Go ahead," Mom repeated, giving her a little smile. Abbey smiled back, and went, before they changed her mind – but she hovered in the hallway for a moment.
"She's probably the only one in her class not participating," Mom was saying to Dad, very softly, and Abbey could just barely see Judy leaning in to listen. "I think she's handling it very well, all things considered."
Dad shrugged, in his Dad way. "She's better off."
Mom made a strange, almost angry face, and Judy leaned back, quickly bending her head to her plate and paying great attention to her food. Dad looked up, saw it, and did the same. "But I'm sure you're right," he added swiftly, around a mouthful of peas.
Creeping up the stairs to get her notebook, Abbey wondered about that look on Mom's face.
But life returned to normal, or as normal as normal could be. The trees began sprouting leaves, and the second round of the trials came and went in a blur. Abbey beat out everyone else in her class to win the spelling bee, before losing in the school-wide competition to James Coley, on "harbinger." Judy started practicing clomping around the living room without her brace, and Dad watched her from the couch, looking distant.
It was just before Easter when Mom stopped Abbey after dinner, gesturing sharply to her. "Come with me, young lady."
Gulping nervously, Abbey followed Mom up the stairs, into her bedroom, and waited while Mom closed the door.
"I was doing laundry, and I found this in your sock drawer," Mom said, and brandished the Polio Pioneer pin. "Did you steal it?"
Abbey opened her mouth, and closed it again. "No."
Mom narrowed her eyes. "Well, there's no other way you could have gotten it. Abigail. Did you steal this?"
"I didn't!" Abbey grit her teeth. "It's mine."
"This is only for children who are part of the testing, and your father wouldn't sign off for you to participate," Mom said, in her my-patience-is-wearing-thin voice. "Where did you get it from, Abigail?"
Staring at the floor, Abbey squared her shoulders, waiting to be yelled at.
Mom waited a moment, still holding out the pin, and finally sighed, putting it in her pocket. "I'm going to have to go up to school tomorrow, then, and talk to Sister Catherine."
Abbey's head whipped up. "What?"
"Well, whoever's missing their pin will want it back," Mom said practically.
"It's mine," Abbey blurted. "They gave it to me. I've had two shots and I'm not going to get sick and it's mine." Wincing, she waited.
But, surprisingly, Mom didn't yell. She…laughed.
"Oh, Abbey, you're – how on Earth – did you forge…?" Holding her stomach, she dropped, a little awkwardly, onto Abbey's low bed, still laughing. "You must have. Oh, your father has completely forgotten what it's like to be little, hasn't he? Come here, I'm not that mad."
Wavering, Abbey slowly crept closer, until Mom finally reached out and hooked an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. "Let me see?" She slid up the sleeve of Abbey's blouse, examining the tiny mark on her arm from the shots. "Did it hurt?"
"Not so bad." Abbey peered over her shoulder at her arm as Mom touched the scar. "It's just like a penicillin shot."
"And you haven't felt sick at all?" Mom asked, her voice suddenly a little nervous.
She shook her head. "Nope. My arm was a little sore after the second one, but they told us that happens sometimes...." And then she had to stop talking, because Mom had wrapped her arms around her, pulling her into a tight embrace.
"God, Abigail, don't you ever do anything like that again!" Mom finally whispered. "If you got sick, I don't know what we would have done –" She ran her hand over Abbey's hair, stroking it roughly. "It was hard enough with your sister, even when we knew she'd get better, and seeing that brace every day –"
"I'm OK, Mom, and I won't get sick!" Abbey whispered into her shoulder. "That's why I did it." Her voice was quiet and nervous, as she hugged Mom back. "Now you don't have to be scared that I'll get sick."
"You shouldn't have," Mom repeated. "They are supposed to do tests and make sure –"
"They did everything at school. To double-check," Abbey explained. "The doctors and nurses come in and the whole gymnasium becomes a doctor's office." She pulled her sleeve back down, ducking her head. "Are… are you mad?"
"A little," Mom answered immediately. "But – I really can't blame you, can I?" She kissed Abbey's forehead. "I didn't agree with your father. I wanted to sign you up as soon as they announced the tests."
That made Abbey shut up for a moment, contemplating the proposition of Mom and Dad disagreeing. "Why didn't he want me to?" she finally asked, afraid that maybe it was the wrong question.
But it wasn't, because Mom didn't yell. "Oh, a lot of reasons." She began stroking Abbey's hair again, slowly this time. "When he got hurt, in the war, the doctors told him he'd be just fine, but his leg was worse than they thought and they couldn't heal him as well as they said. So he doesn't trust the doctors that much, and when they told us Judith would need a brace and operations – it broke his heart."
"How many operations?" Abbey whispered. "You never told me she needed operations."
"They don't know." Mom sighed. "That's the problem with doctors, they never know."
"Now you sound like Daddy," Abbey mumbled. "The doctors know so much more than we do."
That made Mom chuckle. "Well, we do spend an awful lot of time together." But she looked thoughtful, and she handed Abbey the pin. "Put this away, and don't let your father see it. I think this time the doctors do know, and I don't want both of my girls getting sick."
Abbey stared down at it for a moment before taking it. "OK."
"And if I ever catch you forging your father's name on anything again, you'll be grounded until you graduate high school," Mom added, voice steely, making Abbey's eyes go wide, and she nodded solemnly, hurrying to tuck the pin back into her sock drawer as Mom left her alone.
The last cycle of shots was almost boring, and it was a long year before the results of the trials were finally announced. But everyone knew. Summer had been almost lively, even though the pool was closed, and hardly anybody got sent to camp. And even though everyone waited with bated breath, there were no new cases reported.
Even Mary was allowed back over to play, although she confessed to Abbey that her mother had told her she wasn't supposed to go upstairs; that was too close to Judy's room.
Even Dad finally commented on the difference one night, while working on his books, gleefully calculating the profit margins for the month. Abbey just smiled, catching Mom's eye, and left the room to go outside to play.
But finally the official announcement came, a whole year later, in April. Abbey was in school, agonizing over a math exam, when the PA system squawked to life.
"May I have your attention please." The entire class looked up, and Sister Margaret waved a hand at them when excited chattering began.
"Class, your exams! Quiet, please."
It was a hopeless case. The PA went on. "There has been a conference at the University of Michigan this morning, to announce the results of the Salk vaccine trials, that we here at St. Anthony's Parish have been so blessed to participate in." Even Sister Margaret forgot about the exams, staring at the PA grill in rapt attention.
"The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent."
Abbey gulped, dropping her pencil, as a cheer went up. She could hear it echoing up and down the hallway, from other classrooms, and outside on the street, someone started honking the horn of their car.
"In your prayers tonight, I would like all of you to say a prayer of thanks for Doctor Salk and the work he has done in saving so many lives," the PA droned, barely audible over the applause.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Abbey reached to touch the spot on her arm where the tiny scar lingered.