March of Dimes Turns 75

Published 5:17 pm Thursday, April 4, 2013

You might say that Henry Fulcher and the March of Dimes have grown up together – he was born in the closing days of 1937; the March of Dimes was established in 1938. When Fulcher was stricken with polio at the age of 12 in 1950, the March of Dimes Foundation was there, ready to assist. Over the years the local radio personality has continued to promote the March of Dimes and their fundraising activities. In return, the March of Dimes has named this year's April 14 walk, the “2013 Henry Fulcher – Greater Farmville March for Babies,” in his honor.

Fulcher still remembers that October day in 1950 when polio became a part of his life like it was yesterday.

“I had just started the 7th grade,” he recalled. “We were playing touch football at recess, and when we went back inside and sat down I suddenly felt like I had the flu. I asked the teacher if I could go outside, and she told me to just lay my head down on the desk.”

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At that point, young Fulcher realized something wasn't right.

“I told the teacher – I can't lay my head down,” he said. “I couldn't bend my neck.”

More symptoms quickly followed.

“When I went home that night my right leg slid out of the bed,” Fulcher continued. “I could not get my leg back up on the bed. I had to call my brother John in the other room, and he put my leg back in the bed for me.”

The family doctor, Dr. Garland Dyches in Dillwyn, was called in.

“Dr. Dyches came down and looked at me,” Fulcher recalled. “I found out later that he told my family that it was polio.”

Fulcher was sent to MCV in Richmond, which at the time was rated second in polio treatment in the United States.

“It was an epidemic in 1950,” Fulcher continued. “They closed Longwood for awhile and the city of Wytheville was quarantined – I remember that.”

At that time not even the best hospitals in the country knew how polio was transmitted. This was a major concern for parents since most victims were children.

An article from the July 21, 1950, Farmville Herald mirrored these concerns:

“Despite lack of definitive knowledge about the causes of polio, national authorities in the polio prevention field are agreed on certain precautions which are believed to afford reasonable protection against the dreaded disease,” stated Dr. H. E. Jenkins, health officer. “Heading the list, he said, is cleanliness. Other suggestions included: make sure children get plenty of rest, keep children under 10 out of crowds, avoid sudden or excessive chills, and avoid unnecessary trips.”

Fulcher's trip to the hospital in Richmond that October day in 1950 was not only necessary – it was a matter of life or death.

“I lay on a stretcher in the hallway the first day at MCV because they didn't have a room,” he related. “When they put me in a room there were six of us with a walk space of maybe five feet between the beds. There was a boy in there that was nine years old – his name was Allen. He was calling for his mother, but they wouldn't let her come in until just before he died. They wrapped his mother up in a sheet because we were in isolation. Of course, they burned all my clothes.”

Fulcher was in the hospital about three weeks before he was allowed visitors, and they, too, were wrapped in sheets.

“After they put me in a room the doctor came in to see how I was doing,” Fulcher recalled. “I told him I hadn't been to sleep since I'd been there. The doctor took some blood and in four or five minutes came back with a stretcher. They took me down and put me in the iron lung.”

The doctor's comment to Fulcher was to the point, “Son, if you'd gone to sleep you would have died. Your body knew that so it stayed awake to stay alive.”

Fulcher remembers the iron lung experience as a solitary one – and the only time he cried.

“I had never been away from home overnight by myself,” he said. “The loneliness was probably the worst of it because I was in isolation. I'd be laying there at maybe 2 'o' clock in the morning and the sweat was rolling – there was no air conditioning at MCV in those days – and I would hear the freight train blow clear across Richmond. That was the only time I cried, I think.”

Fulcher had other concerns as well.

“When I went in the hospital and found out I was going to be there awhile I was worried about how my family would pay the bills,” Fulcher related. “I had ten brothers and sisters. My father would have lost our home, the farm – everything! He just couldn't have done it.”

The March of Dimes not only to eased that burden, they erased it.

“I found out the March of Dimes was going to take care of it” Fulcher said. “And they did!”

The March of Dimes Foundation grew out of the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. Comedian Eddie Cantor created the first grassroots fundraiser for the Foundation when he asked every man, woman and child in the country to send a dime to the president at the White House. That first March of Dimes was wildly successful with over four billion dimes collected. The nickname stuck and became an official part of the Foundation's name.

With polio, the March of Dimes Foundation had taken on a formidable foe. At the height of the polio epidemic, 60,000 cases were reported with 3,000 deaths in the United States. When the polio vaccine created by Jonas Salk became widely available in 1955, the tide began to turn. By 1979, polio occurring from natural infection was eliminated from the United States.

Doctors of the time, including Dr. Jenkins quoted in the 1950 Herald article, were on the right track. By the mid-1950s, doctors knew that polio was primarily transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food or water.

“The March of Dimes is the only major health organization that accomplished what it set out to do,” Fulcher observed.

At the age of 12, Fulcher also accomplished what he set out to do – to get back on his feet.

“One day in the hospital this doctor came in with a tape line and said he was going to measure me for some shiny braces and crutches,” Fulcher recalled. “I ran him out of the room. I told the doctor that I was going to walk without them!”

Fulcher eventually did walk, but the path to mobility was not an easy one.

“That first time standing on my feet I felt like I weighed 10,000 pounds,” he recalled. “I must of stood maybe three seconds before my knees crumpled.”

The doctor who observed this major breakthrough commented, “Son, there's no medical reason for this.”

Fulcher promptly told the doctor, “I guess the Lord did it.”

The doctor added his own affirmation.

“That doctor told me – 'He did, son, but don't ever forget that the Lord never forces anyone to be healed,'” Fulcher recalled

This patient was not only willing to be healed; he was determined to make it happen.

“I went home in January of 1951, and then I was home the rest of the year,” he related.

With help from his family, Fulcher devised his own physical therapy program.

“They put a bike in the bedroom and jacked it up,” he recalled. “I would ride that bike. Later on, mama had an old-fashioned churn, so I would churn for her – lift it up and down. It would wear me out.”

Progress was slow, but eventually Fulcher did walk.

“It was probably two or three years before I could walk where I wanted to go,” he recalled.

During those years, the radio was Fulcher's link to the outside world.

“I was kind of housebound, and I listened to the radio a lot,” he said. “I said – I'm enjoying the music so much, someday I'm going to get on the radio and play music for other people.”

That dream became a reality thanks to the March of Dimes Foundation.

“The March of Dimes sent me to radio school when I graduated from high school in 1956,” Fulcher stated. “That was more than I ever expected.”

In return, Fulcher has done his part to help the March of Dimes whenever possible.

“I've tried to work with the March of Dimes as much as I can,” he stated. “Right now I'm working with the March of Dimes in Lynchburg and also in Richmond and Glen Allen, as well as Farmville.

Over the years the March of Dimes has kept in step with the times. After polio was eradicated, the Foundation turned its focus on birth defects and more recently, premature births.

The April 14 event in Farmville will mark a special milestone – the 75th anniversary of the March of Dimes. The title of this year's walk offers a winning combination: The 2013 Henry Fulcher – Greater Farmville March for Babies. Both are known for accomplishing what they set out to do.

The 2013 Henry Fulcher – Greater Farmville March for Babies will be Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m. (registration at 1 p.m.) at Centra Southside Community Hospital. With 2013 being the 75th anniversary, the March of Dimes would like to recruit 75 local ambassadors to be honored at the event. An ambassador is any family impacted by premature birth, birth defects or by the loss of a baby; for more information contact Betsy Rhodes at (804) 977-2034 or at