Fort Worth, Texas,
08:09 AM

After Battle with Polio, Longtime Cook Children’s Donor Explains Why She Can’t Wait to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

In the spring of 1943, 16-year-old Clarabele "Pit" Dodson had one concern on her mind – getting a tan. She had just graduated from Paschal High School in Fort Worth, Texas, and was attending one of the many pool parties being held by local teens.

“Everybody had to have a tan in those days,” Pit, now 95, recalls. “We had been swimming, and I went out on a rooftop. I laid there for two hours and didn’t even burn.”

After hours in the sun, Pit developed a terrible headache. She remembers returning to her home, a two-story estate in the grand Ryan Place neighborhood, and telling her mother about the pain.

“The polio headache is one of the worst headaches. You can’t talk. It’s like a hammer,” she explained in a recent interview. “My mother called the doctor and said ‘something’s wrong, Pit’s very ill.’”

At that time, Fort Worth was in the middle of a polio outbreak, though Pit does not remember people being afraid or even aware of what was going on. Her doctor, however, knew about the growing number of local cases and insisted she be taken to the hospital.

She was admitted to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital (formerly Harris Hospital) in downtown Fort Worth. A spinal tap confirmed her diagnosis and she was placed in an isolated area of the hospital reserved for children with polio.

“It was a great, big room with about 35 beds. There were old-fashioned washing machines everywhere,” she said. “The nurses put the pads in the machines in hot, hot water and rang them out. That’s how they got the hot pads to put on our bodies to stop the spasms. My father donated about 100 of these machines to the hospital.”

Much like COVID-19 today, polio was somewhat of a mystery to medical professionals. There was no medicine to treat its symptoms, nor a vaccine to prevent its spread. The only thing doctors and nurses knew to do was to apply heat.

“It was a lot like today, nobody knew a thing about it,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), polio disabled more than 35,000 people a year in the 1940s. It mostly affected infants and children, and many who caught polio had no symptoms at all. But for those who did, muscle pain and paralysis were common. Some children needed help breathing from an “iron lung,” a negative pressure ventilator.

Pit remembers being the oldest patient in the polio wing and says she became somewhat of a mother figure to the younger children. After many weeks, Pit’s parents decided to bring her home to receive round-the-clock care. One of her caretakers was her great aunt, a nurse who had traveled to Boston to train to take care of children with polio.

Thankfully, Pit recovered from the virus and had no long-term effects. She says the COVID-19 pandemic reminds her of that period in many ways, but stresses that people back then were unified in fighting the disease.

“When the vaccine came out in 1955, people were excited, overjoyed,” she explained. “We could go swimming again. We could have parties again. We didn’t have to be isolated anymore.”

She worries that today’s media environment has played a role in our current division. In the early 1940’s, there was no television, much less internet, and social media. Newspapers and radio were the only way people received their news. Pit thinks that helped her generation trust doctors and science.

“Medical science today, thank goodness, is 10 times better than what we had,” she said, noting that she also had scarlet fever and diphtheria as a child. “People have got to realize that our doctors and nurses are trying.”

Thanks to the polio vaccine, zero cases have originated in the U.S. since 1979. Pit hopes the COVID-19 vaccine will do the same for the current pandemic.

“In life, there are phases, and I believe this is just a phase we are going through,” said Pit. “If you’re able to get the vaccine, you should. I’m 95 years of age, but I can’t wait to have it.”

She credits her excitement for the vaccine to her experience of living for nearly a century.

“Sometimes younger people don’t realize what people my age have lived through. We had wars and illnesses. This is just one more thing we have to work together to get through. And remember, we’re all in this together.”

About Clarabele "Pit" Dodson 

Pit was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. From a very early age, she remembers her parents teaching her the importance of giving back and taking care of others. More than just teaching her, they led by example. She has memories of her mother making dinners and bringing them to the Fort Worth Free Baby Hospital. As far back as she can remember, her parents supported both entities that would later become Cook Children's.

When Pit was a student at Paschal High School during World War II, many nurses were serving overseas and the local hospitals were understaffed. She recalls a local physician coming to her school, asking for volunteers to undergo a training to help in the hospital. She didn't hesitate to step in where she was needed.

She went on to marry and moved to a working ranch in Wise County with her husband, where they raised their children. She loved and cared for every animal on that property; from the baby bull she bottle-fed and raised as a pet, to the countless stray cats and skunks she left milk out for every day. And when she wasn't caring for their animals, she volunteered thousands of hours of her time at various organizations in Fort Worth and Wise County, including Cook Children's.

During their marriage, Pit and Tom decided they wanted to know more about Cook Children's. In 1989, they toured the medical center and a passion was ignited. Together, they began supporting Cook Children's. When Tom passed away in 2005, Pit not only remained connected with Cook Children's, but became even deeper engaged.

She has flown with our Teddy Bear Transport team, visited Camp Sanguinity, a camp for Cook Children's patients with cancer and blood disorders, and has helped us celebrate our centennial birthday, to name just a few of her Cook Children's experiences.

For more than three decades, Pit has given generously to Cook Children's, her benevolence touching nearly every corner of the medical center and affording us incredible growth. Her most recent gift will help to establish a Neuro-research endowment, as well as a Pastoral Care endowment and support of our Total XVII trial, which aims to provide a more efficient way to treat patients with various forms of leukemia.

Through her generosity, Pit has and continues to build an incredible legacy that will serve the families in our community for generations. But no matter how great that legacy is, it pales in comparison to her.

Comments 1 - 3 (3)
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Terri Andrews
Wonderful & important message about polio, the current pandemic & service!
Belinda Waters
What an amazing woman! I will share this story and wish everyone would read it!
LaFon Commander
Amazing woman. I don’t remember protests when the polio vaccines came out or the ones for the childhood diseases until the past few years. Thank you for all you have done, both in your volunteering and in your monetary donations.