Heroes who step up in times of crisis have been here all along. We just don’t always recognize them.
Tulsa’s Dr. Ian MacKenzie was recognized as a hero during the city’s terrifying polio epidemics. The Canadian-born orthopedic surgeon established and supervised Hillcrest Hospital’s polio ward, which was overflowing with patients, most of them children and teenagers.
Polio epidemics struck the nation periodically from 1916-1952, but the worst was in 1949.
Oklahoma was one of the states hardest hit; 1,323 people were afflicted and 66 died, according to a Tulsa World article. The state’s three major polio treatment centers were Oklahoma City’s Children’s Hospital, and St. John Medical Center and Hillcrest, both in Tulsa.
It was such a fearful time — nobody knew what caused polio or how it spread. There was some treatment, no cure and no preventative vaccine. Some doctors and hospitals did not accept polio patients, but for two decades the heart of MacKenzie’s practice was treating polio patients who came from as far away as South America and China. He reduced the hospital’s polio death rate from 8% to 1.2% and was known for his effective rehabilitation of convalescing patients.
At Hillcrest’s polio ward, all the rooms and hall were filled with beds and iron lungs, crammed together so tightly, “We had to walk sideways to get to our son’s bed,” one patient’s mother said. Here, MacKenzie was idolized. Parents lined up for Sunday morning consultations and one remembered, “When your turn came, Dr. MacKenzie never even had to consult a note. He knew everything about every case.”
Those epidemics were long hours for health care personnel.
“It was nothing for them to work 24 hours,” says MacKenzie’s daughter, Ann, who still lives in Tulsa. “They loved their patients.”
She and her siblings rarely saw their father in the summers, when the epidemics were at their height. He left for the hospital before they were awake and came home after they were in bed. Sometimes, for a treat, the whole family — children in their nightclothes — piled into the family car at 9 p.m. and went to Weber’s for root beer.
The families of doctors and nurses were shunned like lepers, MacKenzie’s late wife, Margaret, told me.
“People wouldn’t come see us because they were sure they’d catch it.” Other children wouldn’t play with the MacKenzie children. “When fear sets in, people act differently,” Ann says.
Hospitals struggled with shortages of space, health care personnel and funding. Few people had polio insurance, and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was slow in paying for patients’ care, which stretched into months or years. In 1952, MacKenzie resigned angrily from Hillcrest after a disagreement over the administration’s dismissal of some polio patients.
A year later, he suffered a fatal car accident a block from his midtown Tulsa home. He was hospitalized for eight days as friends and patients — one of them a recovered polio patient in a wheelchair — donated blood. Then they raised funds for a memorial portrait of the doctor wearing his prized MacKenzie tartan jacket to hang in Hillcrest.
MacKenzie was 50 when he died. He left behind his widow, age 39, and five children under the age of 14. Margaret had met the doctor when she was a volunteer at the hospital. As a devoted doctor’s wife, on winter mornings she went outside in her nightgown and robe to put chains on the family car so her surgeon husband would not risk injuring his hands. A few years after MacKenzie’s death, 15-year-old John, the oldest son, died in a drowning accident. Her mother was such a fighter, Ann says. “She tried to keep everything the same, but nothing is the same after that.”
The surviving siblings included David, who became the Tulsa World’s longtime fine arts critic and so admired his dapper father that he wore three-piece suits, bow ties and a moustache, just like the polio doctor.
The moral of this story is that hard times, including pandemics, bring forth heroes. Some of them are their families.
Author’s note: Much of this information comes from a long article I wrote about Oklahoma’s polio epidemics for the August 1977 issue of “Oklahoma Monthly” magazine.