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She Survived Bulbar Polio



The Polio Miracle

An essay by Paul H. Belz, 2014,

To be born in 1933 in the United States of America was to be born into the deepest part of the greatest economic depression in the young nation’s history. The unemployment rate was 25% that year and the annual income of over 40% of American families was below $1,500, with only 2% surpassing $10,000.

To be born in 1933 in America was to share a birth year with the regime of one of history’s most murderous dictators. It’s the year when Adolph Hitler finally gained absolute power in Germany.

To be born in 1933 in America was to be born during a watershed period of social change in the nation. That year witnessed passage of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed the 18th Amendment’s nationwide prohibition on alcohol, thereby ending the era of bootleggers and forever inhibiting attempts to legislate morality.

But a much more momentous 1933 event was the first of three inaugurations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) as President of the United States. Aggressive implementation was his forte. Upon succeeding Herbert Hoover, Roosevelt immediately closed every bank in America until each could be examined and declared financially sound.

While the world stage was tumultuous, a less newsworthy event occurred in 1933. It was of no global consequence, but created a new center of the universe for Helen and Graber Belz.

On schedule and with beautiful, piercing blue eyes, Helen Clare Belz took her first glance at the tempestuous world from within the safe confines of Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore at eight p.m. on July 3, 1933. With the help of Dr. Frank K. Morris, M.D., she became the first born of eight healthy Belz children, the third generation descendant of a German immigrant laborer who in 1852 had abandoned a Prussia percolating with revolution and persecution of Catholics to pursue dreams deemed more attainable in America.

For the next two years, Clare shared the front bedroom of 2105 W. Lexington Street in West Baltimore with her father and mother. Her mother Helen marked those years under her mother-in-law’s scrutiny as the unhappiest of her life.

In December of 1935, with Clare beyond age two and her sibling Mary Jane nine months old, the family moved into their own house at 605 N. Augusta Avenue, just north of Edmondson Avenue in West Baltimore. The house was a large, beautifully designed, brick, Williamsburg-style row home with the innovative touch of windows in every room. It had been owned by a dying Frenchwoman with a raucous pet parrot. Mary A. Leplanche had purchased the home new in 1930 but was too feeble to prevent its slide into termite infestation, filth, and general disrepair. Though unhappy living at her mother-in-law’s, Helen was less than enchanted with the new home. The cost/benefit ledger balanced, however, because Graber had the carpentry skills to refurbish the house, its poor condition reduced the purchase price, and the recently constructed Edmondson Village neighborhood offered a beautiful, safe, and friendly environment in which to raise childrenwith one ominous qualification; bigotry was systemic.

Consistent with the times, Edmondson Village was segregatedno African-American, Arab, Asian, Hispanic or Jewish residentsand the population was split evenly between Protestants and Roman Catholics. With explicit language from its teaching nuns, the Catholic school forbade its students from associating with neighborhood Protestants or non-Catholics of any kind, although a few Protestants did surreptitiously attend Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) dances when popular bands were playing. Led by the fiery Monsignor Louis C. Vaeth, the neighborhood’s growing Catholic Church, Saint Bernardine’s, would play a pivotal role in young Clare’s future.

As the first of eight siblings, the example set by Clare would be crucial for the character development of the rest of her brothers and sisters. She was an ideal role model academically. In the era preceding rampant grade inflation she worked tirelessly and earned straight A’s throughout school with just a smattering of B grades. Her work was meritorious enough to earn an offer of an academic scholarship to high school at Marywood Seminary in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to be underwritten by Monsignor Vaeth. Marywood was the “motherhouse” for the Immaculate Heart of Mary order of nuns which staffed Saint Bernardine’s Elementary School and would teach all eight of the Belz children.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that, “Our example leaves footprints on the sands of time.” Clare’s footprints left a pretty visible trail for the rest of the Belz children to follow, and they all achieved admirable degrees of scholastic success.

As a person, Clare was feisty and independent and would not be taken advantage of, but she projected warmth and good humor, which made her popular with most people, especially children. Her philosophy regarding friends was mirrored by Ben Franklin’s words: “Be civil to all, social with many, and familiar with few.”

More important than her personality traits were her values, which set standards that prodded the Belz children to reach beyond the norm of the day. Alcohol, gambling, tobacco, recreational sex, and insubordination were concepts that needed no experimentation to earn her rejection. She had the character to “just say no.” But her values went beyond mere abstention from vice. During her elementary school days, she wrote regularly to her Uncle Charles Schemm while he served overseas in the army during World War II. That initiative made her a favorite of Uncle Charles and his wife Aunt Jeane, a bond which endured after their first child was born in 1947.

Clare’s primary recreational diversion became music. Her father Graber had been a promising young violinist, tutored by Peabody Conservatory and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra notable Louis Cheslock, a member of H. L. Mencken’s storied Saturday Night Club. Graber’s unmarried Aunt May (Mary Agnes Graber) generously financed his lessons and purchased his violin, which was selected by Cheslock himself. At the age of sixteen Graber’s musical ambitions ended when his father
died following surgery. He left school and entered the work force to help support his mother and younger siblings.

For the balance of his life, until arthritis intervened, he continued to play the violin at home for enjoyment. Graber’s fiddling created an environment in which young Clare would learn to love music. Her “Aunt Re-Re” (Marie R. Belz), who was accomplished enough to play the organ for Saint Martin’s Catholic Church, gave her piano lessons.


When sustained interest and musical talent became evident, Clare’s father and mother arranged for her to receive music lessons at Saint Bernardine’s School and bought a piano when she was in the third grade. The Baldwin “Hamilton Console” model was solid mahogany and cost $350 in 1942. World War II was just beginning, and the use of ivory for piano keys had been outlawed. Consequently, her piano had plastic white keys along with the traditional ebony ones. The
beautiful instrument would change Clare’s life forever.

Before the eighth grade was completed, she was regularly playing the big church organ at Saint Bernardine’s and had been asked to substitute in that capacity at Saint Philip & James Church on Charles Street. She became an accomplished pianist and organist and would pursue music for undergraduate and graduate college degrees. Her father had hoped to send her to the Peabody Conservatory to receive the advanced music training which fate had denied him. Fate, however, would intervene in Clare’s life as well.

In the summer of 1945 Clare was twelve years old and about to enter the seventh grade at Saint Bernardine’s School. The Belz family rarely went to the beach but in August Helen and Graber took their five children on a day-trip to Bay Ridge, a popular waterfront resort in Anne Arundel County.

Before bridges across the Chesapeake Bay popularized automobile trips to Ocean City, Maryland, Bay Ridge was such a magnet for the state’s beach lovers it was billed the “Queen Resort of the Chesapeake.” The town is on the western shore of the Bay about three miles southeast of Annapolis. It was settled in 1684, witnessed the passage of 260 British warships in 1777, and was served by its own railroad from Annapolis between 1886 and 1903.

The summer of ’45 saw many areas of the United States plagued by a polio epidemic. Polio has caused paralysis and death throughout most of human history with the earliest reference to it being found in a three-thousand year-old Egyptian stone engraving. The prominent journalist H. L. Mencken wrote of polio epidemics occurring virtually every summer in Baltimore during his childhood in the late 1890s, and the scourge continued into the 1950s. By the time of the Great Depression, polio was the most feared disease in America. Public officials often closed neighborhood swimming pools, and parents routinely forbade their children from drinking at public water fountains.

Scientifically named paralytic poliomyelitis, this childhood disease is an acute viral infection of the gray matter of the spinal cord. Its signature symptom is the paralysis of various muscle groups which typically atrophy, resulting in permanent deformities. Even the milder strain crippled many of its surviving victims for life. The bulbar form of polio, which caused death rates varying between 25 and 75 percent in the 1940s, involves the medulla oblongata. The medulla oblongata is the widening continuation of the spinal cord forming the lowest part of the brain, which contains nerve centers controlling life-sustaining functions such as breathing, swallowing, and circulation. Without a cure or a preventive vaccine in 1945 the ultimate resolution was often a quick and painful death.

Highly contagious, the polio virus spreads via contact with contaminated feces or oral secretions and is introduced to the body through the mouth. Polio is so infectious that in households with a polio victim the probability that non-vaccinated siblings will be infected is almost 100%.

While the infection rate is high, it is estimated that the chance of infected children exhibiting symptoms is one in two-hundred because it’s difficult for those virus cells to gain entry into a healthy cell. Six to twenty days is a typical incubation period for the virus and victims are most infectious between seven to ten days before and after the onset of symptoms. The virus establishes itself in the lining of the intestine, and then, by methods still undiscovered by the end of the 20th century, it finds its way into cells, the bloodstream, and ultimately the nervous system.

In undeveloped nations with poor hygiene, most people are exposed to the disease in infancy, and it innocuously causes diarrhea at that stage of life. Their bodies’ immune systems learn to recognize the virus, and this protects the children as they grow older. Ironically, as civilizations develop and improve hygiene, without vaccines the disease becomes more prevalent. Children in those more developed nations in the 1940s were not exposed to the virus until they were old enough to begin playing with others, swimming in public places, and going to school. When the initial exposure occurs at a later age, paralysis is more likely to result. So ironically, wealthier children, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who were raised in more hygienic environments, became polio’s most seriously affected victims in pre-vaccine days.

As Mencken reported, polio was a summer disease in the United States, for that was the time of year when children were clustering at pools and streams, drinking public water, and playing with friends outdoors for prolonged periods. It was also when flies abounded, infesting restaurant and picnic food.

Despite doctors’ warnings against swimming in 1945 the Belz family made their unusual trip to the beach where all five children splashed in the surf of the Chesapeake Bay to escape the stifling heat and humidity of Baltimore’s August. In deference to the warnings all but Clare avoided submerging their heads in the water. She loved the Bay Ridge water slide and total submersion was its cooling summer gift. Consequently, the same month Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan were leveled by atomic bombs, thereby ending World War II, Clare contracted bulbar polio following that family excursion to Bay Ridge resort. The disease struck her with typical flu symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, muscle soreness, dehydration, and a high fever.

The Belz family pediatrician was Dr. G. Bowers Mansdorfer, with whom the family had a love-hate relationship throughout the years based on their perception of some questionable diagnoses and treatments. Ultimately the family switched to a new pediatrician, but meanwhile Dr. Mansdorfer had to be persuaded by Graber Belz that Clare did have polio, not the flu. After finally concurring with the diagnosis of polio, the doctor hypothesized that she had contracted the virus either from the waters of Bay Ridge or from contaminated food at a nearby fly-infested restaurant the family had visited. No other child in the Augusta Avenue neighborhood or in the Belz family exhibited signs of polio that year. Fate was merciful with those 200-1 odds against symptoms. One could say the Belz family was actually lucky because their other four children were undoubtedly infected by Clare but in their cases no viral cells were able to invade healthy cells and start reproducing.

Ironically, President Roosevelt, a polio paralysis victim whose career took flight in concert with Clare’s birth in 1933, had died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945. She almost joined him in death that year. The bulbar polio slowly destroyed Clare’s ability to walk, breathe, and swallow until she ultimately collapsed and was taken to Mercy Hospital in Baltimore. A painful spinal tap confirmed her father’s early suspicion.

Henry C. Rosendale immediately visited the Carmelite Monastery on Biddle Street to request prayers for his first grandchild. The Carmelites were a cloistered order of nuns dedicated to prayer. Founded in 1790 in Port Tobacco, Maryland, they were the first community of religious women established in the United States.

Immediately upon arrival at a hospital, and, in many cases without explanation or anesthetic, children were given that spinal tap to confirm a polio diagnosis. The pain in polio patients is especially severe during the early stages of de-innervation when the disease is killing the nerves that control the body’s muscles. Clare was in intense pain, could not swallow food, and was not expected by doctors to survive.

Typically, polio treatment in the 1940s merely entailed feeding children when possible and applying extremely hot packs made from itchy, wool Army blankets covered with an oil cloth which maintained heat but produced a repugnant smell.  Routine efforts to keep patients clean and isolate them from other susceptible children completed the care regimen.

For most cases judged to be hopeless, a Drinker respirator or “iron lung” was used. The iron lung was almost the length of a modern subcompact car and exerted a push-pull motion on the child’s chest. It was a desperation measure evocative of medieval technology and, despite her hopeless condition Clare was spared this “Rube Goldberg” device. Intravenous feeding was not yet possible and there was no cure, so one of the few reasonable questions to ask doctors was whether patients would simply stop breathing before starvation escorted them along a more painful path to death’s door.

A key strategy of hospitals in treating polio patients was to restrict family visits so that children would transfer loyalty, affection, and dependence from their families to the hospital and its attendants. Too many family visits, it was thought, would undermine the hospital’s assumption of parental roles. This strategy was intended to develop more cooperative patients and allegedly make recovery more likely. But for young children, some of whom spent years in the hospital, being abandoned by their parents was a horrific experience which psychologically scarred survivors for life.

The feeling of abandonment had a profound effect on Clare in the few months during which she was under institutional care. When prodded later in life, she would relate memories of the excruciating pain, the terror of watching rats and roaches roaming the room while she was immobilized, and the feelings of loneliness and abandonment. She recalled her fear and panic upon overhearing the doctors outside her door telling her father, “Your daughter only has about four days to live.” Then one horrific August evening Clare sensed that she would not survive the night. She made a private vow to God to join the convent if He allowed her to recover.

When she awakened in the morning she was symptom free.


Clare’s Jewish doctor at Mercy Hospital said he was not a believer in miracles but if he were, this would be his evidentiary jewel. Other doctors at Mercy concurred that they had never seen a case of bulbar polio so advanced result in a remission so spontaneous and complete. Unaware of Clare’s private vow, family members credited the prayers of those Carmelite nuns.


Her doctors sent her to Kernan’s Hospital in Woodlawn for physical therapy. For Clare, that consisted primarily of muscle massage and swimming/whirlpool therapy. The final stage of her recovery saw her convalescing at her grandmother “Na-Na’s” (Regina Graber Belz) house at 2105 W. Lexington Street where she could be constantly observed and receive additional daily leg massages. When it was felt she could no longer infect her brothers and sisters, she returned to 605 N. Augusta Avenue and tried to salvage a normal, teenage life. She walked without a nuance of a limp.

The wonderment of her doctors precipitated discussions about making Clare a "March of Dimes" poster child for Maryland. The proximity of the cure to her vow left Clare with a more spiritual kind of wonderment. The March of Dimes was an organization formed to raise money to support the search for a polio cure. Clare’s recovery, however, was so rapid and complete that all physical evidence of the dread disease disappeared and she was back in school before Christmas of 1945. She was dropped from consideration as a poster child because of the miraculously thorough recovery. The public would never have believed she had been recently ravaged by the deadliest form of polio. Clare was one of 250,000 Americans who survived the epidemic of the 1940s and ‘50s.

There are intriguing parallels between the polio virus and the story of the Trojan Horse from Greek mythology. The cellular universe within the body seems to mirror human civilization in that there are predators and prey, trickery and deceit, vehicles in which to travel, manufacturing of sorts, and the ability of good and bad characters to adapt.

Use of the Trojan Horse was the pivotal strategy of the Greeks during their ten-year war with the Trojans to retrieve Helen, the kidnapped wife of the Greek king. The goal of the Greeks in using the Trojan Horse mirrors the goal of the polio virus in attempting to convince its foe that it is a friendly or non-threatening presence. The huge, wooden horse was left outside the gates of Troy and interpreted as a gift. Consequently, it was brought into the city by its victims who discovered too late that it was hollow and filled with soldiers. The polio virus similarly hides in a tough capsid and tricks the body’s immune system into ignoring the imminent threat to its welfare until it somehow enters a healthy cell.

Like the Trojan Horse, polio’s initial wave of warriors travels efficiently in one vehicle. The virus carries its soldiersspecialized proteinshidden in the capsid and linked together on a strand which is no more than a single RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecule. The capsid is durable enough to survive a trip through the powerful acids in the human stomach. Upon subsequent entry into a healthy intestinal cell’s cytoplasm, the capsid opens and the specialized proteins are sliced from the strand by enzymeswhich are specialized proteins themselves. This frees the proteins to go about their separate and deadly work.

Like the Trojan Horse, polio has limited entry gates for accessing its opponent. The polio virus can only enter protein-surfaced cells in an area of the intestine called “Peyer’s Patch.” Cells with the same protein surface exist in the kidneys and other organs but for reasons unknown as of 2000, the virus cannot enter them. This phenomenon is known as tissue tropism. Similarly, the success of the Greeks depended on gaining entry to Troy through a specific, seemingly impenetrable gateway.

The Greeks had no escape plan for the Trojan Horse had the hoax been discovered early, and the polio virus similarly has no contingency plan for failureit’s all or nothing. The virus cannot escape from the cell it enters. But if it wins the battle, it will successfully reproduce and cause its host cell to explode, releasing new warriors to attack other healthy cells. Inversely, the Greeks simply opened the gates to the city, allowing more attackers to enter.

Like the warriors inside the Trojan Horse, the polio virus must work expeditiously to take advantage of the element of surprise before the foe recognizes a threat and marshals defensive reinforcements. The Trojans had sufficient numbers to overwhelm the Greeks who were inside the Horse, and a body’s immune system has enough soldiers to defeat the polio virus. The strategy of the ultimately successful vaccines was to introduce the body to a weakened or dead polio virus in advance of an actual attack. This enabled the body to have reinforcements in place if needed, and, of course, it stole the surprise factor from the virus. During pre-vaccine polio epidemics, the quick acting characteristic of the virus and the element of surprise often enabled it to overwhelm a body’s defenses, resulting in paralysis and death.

Just as the Trojan Horse carried no excess cargo, so too the polio virus travels light. To minimize its load, it does not carry its own replication machinery. Once inside the enemy camp, though, it uses its opponent’s own resources to build a reproductive mechanism. While the Greeks merely opened the gates to admit the rest of their waiting army, the polio virus improves on that military tactic by manufacturing its reinforcements within its victim and then exploding the invaded cell to allow new soldiers egress to invade fresh territory. In 1863 at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee would have appreciated that capability.

But the improvements over mankind’s traditional warfare technologies don’t stop there. The polio virus literally produces new vehicles to transport its deadly progeny. These are in the form of the aforementioned capsids which must be tough enough to survive travel through the enemy’s stomach acids but sensitive enough to open easily upon gaining access to a victim cell’s interior and receiving the proper signal.

The cellular parallels to human warfare are so eerie that one wonders if perhaps when mankind first developed war strategies, generals obtained their ideas subliminally from their own bodies’ cellular version of warriors. The cells certainly had vast amounts of battle-tested experience by the time the human race first engaged in general warfare. If true, this hypothesis would lend a more literal slant to the cliché popular within the physical fitness culture at the beginning of the 21st century: “listen to what your body is telling you.”

All that young Clare knew in 1945 was that she was in severe pain, was terrified, lonely, and convinced along with her family and doctors that she was going to die. As of 2000, the medical profession still has no scientific explanation for her spontaneous cure at the brink of death from bulbar polio, absent any drugs, surgery, or otherwise meaningful treatment. And though scientists have hypotheses they do not conclusively understand how the one in every two hundred polio virus cells manages to enter a healthy target cell. The answer to that question will likely lead to a cure for the common cold and a host of other diseases because that is the stage where any virus would be most vulnerable to destruction.

With the miracle complete and polio behind her, Clare would keep her vow to enter the convent a secret until she finished high school. Having grown up during the Great Depression and World War II and having witnessed her parents’ struggles to raise a family, there was precious little to entice her into abandoning her vow and living in what she referred to in one of her later letters as “the outside world.”

After eight years of elementary education at Saint Bernardine’s School, she wished to accept that offer from Monsignor Vaeth to fund a high school scholarship for her to Marywood Seminary inclusive of tuition, room, board, and music lessons.

While her parents were disheartened over the prospect of Clare leaving home for four years at the age of fourteen, they acceded to her wishes, gave their requisite permission, and resigned themselves to temporarily losing their first-born. She began high school in September, 1947, and, unbeknownst to her mother and father, planned never again to live with the family.

In 1950her senior yearClare spent the Christmas vacation at home. Upon returning to Marywood after the holidays she penned a long, poignant letter to her parents. They were eagerly anticipating her permanent return home in June following a four year absence that seemed an eternity to them. Her father was solidifying plans to send her to the Peabody Conservatory of Music to study piano and organ. She finished writing the letter that would change her life forever on January 5th, 1951, and mailed it on the seventh.

The letter began pleasantly by telling her parents that Christmas 1950 had been the happiest of her life. But she characteristically got quickly to the point and asked them to grant the necessary permission to enter the IHM convent the following September, at which time she would begin pursuit of her college degree and continue her music training. She assured them that she had reached her decision independently of any proselytizing the nuns may have engaged in during
her high school career.

In separate, equally poignant return letters to Clare, her mother, and, somewhat later, her heartbroken father, gave their assent to cooperate with her wishes in every way. They believed through their Catholic faith that religious vocations were a great honor for a family, and this conviction became their solace against the realization that, having left home at age  fourteen, their first-born would never live with them again.

On June 6, 1951, Clare graduated from Marywood Seminary, receiving her high school diploma from Scranton’s bishop, The Most Reverend William J. Hafey, D.D. She was awarded the Catholic War Veterans Medal for achieving the highest average in the graduating class. A full tuition scholarship to Marywood College was offered but she had to decline it because the family couldn’t afford to pay room and board expenses. Shortly thereafter, on July 7th, her sister Priscilla was born, and Clare spent much of her last summer at home helping with the baby.

On September 7, 1951, in lieu of full-time college, she entered the Immaculate Heart of Mary order of nuns in Scranton and began life as a “postulant.” It was the beginning of a six-year “apprenticeship” in convent life. After a year she entered the novitiate stage and as a “novice” took the name of Sr. M. Eugenio, I.H.M. The “M” stood for Mary, and Eugenio was in honor of her father, whose first name was not Graber but Eugene. Then on August 2, 1954, Clare made her first profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and began teaching in September at St. John the Evangelist Elementary School in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The apprenticeship ended in 1957 when she professed her final vows in a ceremony at Marywood. The personal vow she had made at the age of twelve was now fulfilled.

For young nuns the pursuit of a college degree was piecemeal and lengthy. Clare finally received her Bachelor of Music degree from Marywood College on August 6, 1964 and played Swiss composer Paul Huber’s Postludium on the organ at her own graduation ceremony. She spent one summer at Notre Dame, Indiana doing course work for a master’s degree in music. Believing the quality differential didn’t warrant the expense and travel demands, Clare spent subsequent summers fulfilling the degree’s course work at Marywood College. She declined to write the thesis required to graduate because the IHM administration inexplicably assigned her to teach mathematics with no plans to utilize her music education. Following Vatican II, home visits became commonplace and her musical talents entertained the family on the Baldwin piano
maintained from her childhood days.

In reaction to another inexplicable administrative initiative later in her career, Clare was unreceptive to suggestions that she serve as a school principal since she had not been educated and credentialed for administrative work. She opined that changes in the educational climate involving rising tuition rates, less supportive parents, and a more litigious society made that long-common Catholic school practice ill-advised. She found her professional joy in classroom work and her personal joy in her Catholicism, the IHM community, and her family.


Astronaut Christa McAuliffe was chosen to be the first teacher to fly in outer space but died when the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated after liftoff on January 28, 1986. She had expressed her own joy for teaching with an original maxim: “I touch the future, I teach.”


I’m confident that three attributions of Clare’s miracle endured: that as her attending physicians aged they repeated the story of the young girl they saw cured of polio spontaneously by a biological defense mechanism in the body not yet discovered; that any time Henry C. Rosendale was in his granddaughter’s company for a joyful or prideful event his belief in Carmelite prayer was evoked; that whenever Clare experienced some of the peak joys of living her vow tugged at her consciousness.

There is one certainty. Clare touched the future throughout her 40-year career in Catholic elementary school classrooms and she left deep footprints in the sands of time.