Marquette’s early generosity reciprocated in unforeseen ways

The story of Bruce E. Sachs, Part I

These pictures show Bruce E. Sachs in the “trailer unit” iron lung in 1940. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE – One of the largest outbreaks of the polio virus in the Upper Midwest happened in the summer of 1940. Most cases occurred in children, and up to 10% of those patients were in danger from severe respiratory muscle paralysis. Without immediate respiratory assistance, they could stop breathing — permanently. Once it became known that St. Luke’s Hospital in Marquette had one iron lung respirator, children with severe polio paralysis were transported to the hospital from all over theUpper Peninsula by all manner of conveyance and during all hours of the day and night. Anxious parents arrived at St. Luke’s door, desperate to fight for the life of the child they were tightly embracing.

When overwhelmed hospital staff faced the tragedy of too many children struggling to breathe, they asked local businessman and hospital board member, Max K. Reynolds, if he could build any respirators to supplement their only one. He quickly recruited several maintenance and boatyard workers who came up with two brilliant solutions. First was a wooden crate, sealed with boat wax, connected to a vacuum cleaner which would become known as a “wooden iron lung.” One of these is on permanent display at the Marquette Regional History Center.

The second innovation started with a cleaned 50-gallon oil drum with a small sling bed inserted inside it for a younger child whose head could then emerge from a snug rubber collar at one end. A “trailer unit” was created by connecting the oil drum to a nearby commercially made iron lung using a hose. This allowed both devices to use a single source of negative pressure suction to expand both children’s chests for air exchange.

One of the children treated at St. Luke’s in August 1940 was a 13-month-old boy from Baraga, Bruce E. Sachs. Bruce was treated in one of the oil drum trailer units and survived. After a whole-hearted life of service, Bruce recently died at age 82. His life story beautifully illustrates how a community’s generosity to those in need can be reciprocated, multiplied in surprising ways.

After being separated for nine long months in the hospital for recovery and rehabilitative therapy for his weakened arms and legs, Bruce finally returned home to his family in Baraga. He worked hard to learn to walk with the help of a left leg brace that extended from his thigh to his footand a shoe lift, as well as countless hours of therapy from his parents. Recalling his early years, he felt his brother “resented the attention” he received while his sister became his “supporter and helper.” He also recalled the struggles of “trying to be normal.” In a written remembrance he stated “I grew up in a small town with no handicapped education classes; therefore, I was encouraged to do everything the other children did. I played baseball, went fishing, walked my dog and tried to be as good as I could at everything. My dad taught me all the outdoor activities and I was encouraged to do everything I could, with few restrictions.”

He enjoyed several summers as a camper at Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay. During the 1940s, Bay Cliff transitioned from a camp for economically disadvantaged children to one for children with a variety of physical disabilities. The majority of campers remained children disabled by polio throughout the 1940s and early 1950s until the widespread use of the Salk vaccine after 1955. Today, the camp still offers intensive therapies and life-enhancing opportunities at no cost to Yooper children who have physical disabilities. (To learn more, visit www.baycliff.org)

Bruce also revisited St. Luke’s Hospital during some summers for rehabilitative surgeries on his most severely weakened left arm and right leg. Then after graduating from high school in Wakefield, MI, he enrolled as a student at Northern Michigan University. He ultimately earned an Elementary Teaching Certificate and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. He also served as an assistant Boy Scout troop leader in Marquette and was awarded the Outstanding Member Award by Alpha Phi Omega, a National Service Fraternity. After college, he began a 42-year teaching career in Livonia, MI, where he rose to leadership positions in curricula and textbook development, as well as serving on the Livonia Educational Association Board.

Next week’s article will discuss Bruce’s later-life advocacy within the Michigan community of polio survivors and his return to Marquette while facing personal struggles with Post-Polio Syndrome.

About the authors: Frederick Maynard is a retired physician specialist in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.

Sunny Roller, a polio survivor, is a retired teacher, writer, and educator on post-polio issues.

They both became friends with Bruce through their work with the Michigan Polio Network and Bay Cliff Heath Camp. They both serve on the Board of Directors for Post-Polio Health International.


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