Polio is a highly contagious disease. In 1949, there were 42,033 cases in the United States. One of those was a twelve-year-old girl in Austin, Minnesota:
Peg Shculze. Me.
Small Steps is a very accessible piece of non-fiction, due in large part to Kehret’s career as a children’s book author. Her childhood affliction with Polio would make for a fascinating read even without her writing background; by focusing exclusively on her illness and recovery the story never has time to drag.
One morning, while singing chorus with her 7th grade class, Peg felt a muscle twinge in her leg. Feeling weak and tired at home, during lunch time, her mother took her temperature- it was 102 degrees! Her parents reacted quickly, and that quick thinking saved her life, by calling a doctor who advised them to get a spinal tap.
Within 24 hours Peg had gone from regular girl to Polio patient; managing to hit the trifecta of Polio diagnoses: spinal, respiratory, and the least common kind, bulbar. Overnight she lost all movement from the neck down and was moved to University Hospital to be closer to a respirator (Iron Lung) should the need arise. Peg’s condition progressed to requiring an oxygen tent but then began to improve with small miracles like movement in her hands. She was subjected to the Sister Kenny Treatments, the first successful Polio treatments which were developed by an Australian Army nurse, that Peg referred to as Torture Time.
Her “Torture Time” sessions led to real progress, she was discharged to the Sheltering Arms Hospital where she had 4 roommates with varying degrees of Polio. These well rounded characters made a lasting impression on Peg and the five girls managed to have many happy times despite their situation. If you took out all the references to Polio the reader may think Kehret was reminiscing about summer camp. Throughout the whole ordeal Peg’s parents were rock stars- treating her roommates like surrogate daughters and boosting moral throughout the ward.
Despite being a “children’s book” Kehret’s miraculous recovery and vivid memories about her time with Polio made for one of the best memoirs this adult has read.