The Year of the Nurse: Reminders from the Polio Outbreak


It is fitting that 2020 it is the Year of the Nurse! In this season of life I have been intimately reminded of all the amazing nurses that have taught, supported and impacted me over my 17-year nursing career. However, none as special as my grandma Virgene Burright.  

Virgene Burright RN

My grandma came from a gritty farming family from Manning IA, a family that knew hard work and resilience. My grandparents met and married in 1951 and my grandfather was deployed in the Korean war and wounded while my grandma worked towards her goal of being a diploma nurse.   

In 1952 my grandma was in her last semester of nursing school at the Lutheran Hospital School of Nursing, in Sioux City Iowa. That year heavy winter snow followed by sudden warm temperatures in March led to the Missouri and Floyd rivers flooding and one of the worst polio outbreak in the country. Because bridges were out, my grandma along with other nursing students traveled by boat across the Missouri River to take care of polio patients at St. Joseph Hospital. 


Shortly after graduation while working on a polio unit my grandmother contracted polio. She spent just shy of 16 weeks in an iron lung, one of only 11 in the entire city. 

My great grandpa always said the only reason she survived is because she was a nurse and knew how to breathe in an iron lung. He would recall visiting her in the hospital and having to watch his step in the long hallways, with large electrical wires obstructing the path from the iron lungs. 

I only have speckled memories of her discussing these times, but one thing I always knew is that she was proud to be a nurse. She demonstrated the kindness, integrity, resilience and hard work that IS being a nurse. My grandparents went on to raise 4 daughters. My grandma worked in urology, med-surg, skilled nursing and rehab. She passed away in 2017, living her life to the fullest after polio. 

Reminders in the Year of the Nurse 

Kindness and Teamwork 

Much like my grandmother stepped up to serve traveling by boat to help the vulnerable and my grandfather to serve in war, each day many people travel in their community, put on their uniform, donning their PPE and serving and protect our most vulnerable citizens, helping others at the risk of their own lives. Thank you to nurses like my grandma and colleagues, thank you for dedicating your careers to others to helping the sick and protecting the well! We all rely on one another and we will get through this together.


My grandparents led a full and happy life after polio and the war. It did not happen immediately, it takes time to heal from the trauma, and some pieces of the trauma will forever scar our souls. My grandmother was extremely claustrophobic, an iron lung for 4 months can do that to you, what saves your life can also change your life. I find hope in knowing there will be life after COVID, that although it will take many months if not years to overcome the challenges. My grandparents lived some of their most precious years after polio, raising 4 daughters together.

Always Have Hope
Approach each day with optimism and hope, even in some of the darkest moments pearls of light and hope exist. I have hope for our world, country, state, and community. I have hope in the future of nursing!

“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl



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Megan Bayer
Megan has lived in Wichita since 1999, graduated in 2003 as an RN, and received her MSN in Nursing Education in 2016. Megan loves teaching and works in healthcare as Director of Simulation Education at WSU Tech. She is a survivor of childhood cancer that led to some complicated reproductive issues, including the loss of their son Lincoln (18wks, 2008) and daughter Basil (23wks 2010). With a best friend to spend a life-time with and a vision of a family David and Megan embarked on two amazing adoption journeys. With two active girls (London 2012 & Locklyn 2013) and busy careers, life is anything but slow-paced.


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