Miracles, as we all know, don’t happen every day. Whether they’re a product of faith, fate, or fantasy is often decided at the discretion of the storyteller. But one miracle, the Miracle of Hickory, can trace its origins back to a corporeal source, something more tangible than destiny or deities: community.
The first half of the twentieth century found America immersed in two World Wars, as well as one seemingly unwinnable war within the confines of our own continent—the war with polio. The disease ravaged the country, sweeping through cities and towns every summer and leaving a wake of crippled and dead children in its path. Polio, characterized by frozen muscles and paralysis, was dangerously infectious for tots and teens alike, entering through the mouth or nose and crawling inward to the spinal cord. Researchers at the time pointed blind fingers at flies, that summertime pest, but it wasn’t until later that they discovered rivers and streams (like the Catawba in the Hickory area) often bore infected feces from outhouses downstream, where they were ingested in drinking water or during childish frolics in cool creek beds.
In June of 1944, one such epidemic grew from tiny flame to sweeping blaze in the Piedmont of North Carolina. It began with a brief account of a paralytic infant in Hickory’s newspaper, then another, reports quickly escalating to dozens, then hundreds of infected children. The outbreak shattered records as it escalated to unprecedented proportions, quickly becoming the worst polio epidemic ever in the United States. Filled to their brims with little ones, hospitals in Charlotte, Gastonia, and Asheville shuttered their doors to any more patients, condemning aching children to bumpy rides across the state to Raleigh.
At the heart of it all was Hickory. With essentially zero resources and no nearby clinics to which to shuttle their ailing, the town’s location as the epicenter of the epidemic was troubling, to say the least. But in a triumphant show of that signature Southern kindness and community, the town of Hickory accomplished the inconceivable. In just fifty-four hours, the citizens of Hickory rallied together to build a hospital.
Lake Hickory Health Camp, sixty-two acres of wooded lands and a single stone building, had opened the previous year for children at risk of contracting tuberculosis. The peaceful campsite, where sunburnt children picked rambling blackberries on a Thursday, was transformed into a bustling clinic reminiscent of wartime field hospitals by Saturday evening.
It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a lot more to save the lives of hundreds of children. In order to establish the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital in just over two days, the little town leeched resources from across the nation. Makeshift tented wings were erected with wooden floors and walls and canvas roofs. Inmates dug trenches for waterlines. Mothers donated cribs, blankets, basinets. Hospitals across the state sent medical supplies and the occasional live-saving iron lung.
It wasn’t just goods the little-hospital-that-could needed—it was money. The March of Dimes could cover the operational costs and medical expenses once the doors were opened, but construction fell on the shoulders of the community. By piling pennies and crumpled bills, the town of Hickory gathered the $66,000 necessary to finish and furnish the clinic.
Perhaps the most valuable resource—people—were even harder to come by than those pennies. America was in the grips of war; the epidemic broke out a mere three weeks after D-Day. Most able-bodied men were away at war, leaving aged men and convicts to belly up to the tough work of construction. Doctors were rare, but the few who could donate their time made the trek to the summer-hot Piedmont. Perhaps most important, and most scarce, were nurses, the majority of whom had enlisted in the nursing corps. But—call it a miracle—nurses arrived. Bussed in from nearby schools and colleges, others abandoning salaried positions as far away as California, capable nurses arrived in their starch-whites to help the children of Hickory.
And so it was that just fifty-four hours after the community came together to create a hospital, the first feeble patients were admitted. Over the next nine months the slapdash clinic saw 663 patients from across North Carolina and her neighboring states. Of those 663, 528 were diagnosed with polio, and 454 were admitted. In a time of harsh segregation, black patients as well as white were integrated seamlessly into the mix of iron bedsteads and iron lungs.
Though the construction of the hospital is often deemed the Miracle of Hickory, perhaps the true miracle lay in the incredible success of her patients. Of those hundreds of admitted patients, only twelve died—one of the lowest rates ever for polio. The Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital, a makeshift product of necessity during one of the worst epidemics in American history, proved more auspiciously and miraculously rewarding than anyone could have imagined.