The battle of a lifetime: Carmen Bossenbrock and Wenatchee’s crusade against polio

1786

DRYDEN — At 91 years old, and despite a broken leg, Carmen Bossenbrock lives a productive life: Overseeing her family’s longtime pear orchard near Dryden, and carrying on a battle she started more than 60 years ago.

“I just couldn’t tell you how many patients I had in a day,” she says now. “I didn’t count.”

When patients stricken with polio began flooding into Wenatchee’s old Deaconess Hospital in 1952, Carmen was the only thing standing between them and paralysis. For two years, in the thick of the epidemic, she was the only licensed physical therapist practicing anywhere in North Central Washington.

“My license number was 134, and I’m sure it’s well over 12,000 now.”

Carmen Bossenbrock treating a young patient at Deaconess Hospital in the 1950s.

Physical therapy is a key to polio recovery. The virus weakens and paralyzes limbs, and without stimulation and exercise, the immobility can become permanent. Carmen treated hundreds of patients, most of them children.

She worked as a physical therapist until 1992, but her experience in the 1952 outbreak — and a subsequent epidemic in the early 1960s — have stuck with her. She was one of the first women members of the Wenatchee Rotary, and remains passionate about eradicating the disease.

“I don’t think she’s planning to go anywhere until polio’s eradicated,” says Peter Van Well, a past Wenatchee Rotary president. “She’s sent me notes saying we’ve got to get lid on it, we’ve got to end it. She’s been a great donor. She’s always been on our polio committee, and worked tirelessly, and now later in her life, on fundraising and the back end.”

Wenatchee Rotary clubs will be out in front of KPQ Radio on Thursday for World Polio Day, collecting donations for international vaccine programs. Like her fellow Rotarians, Carmen Bossenbrock hopes you’ll give what you can.

“We don’t ever want another epidemic,” she says. “We have to keep up until it’s completely eradicated in the world.”