In the first half of the 20th century, periodic epidemics of polio rattled the nation with waves of critically ill patients, terrified parents, and overwhelmed hospitals. The polio virus attacked the nervous system, causing paralysis. Most of the victims were children and many, unable to breathe on their own, were placed in "iron lungs." Although hospitalization often lasted many months, schooling was not available as special education programs and laws did not yet exist. By the late 1940s over 2000 children in eastern South Dakota were recovering from polio.
At a Sioux Falls hospital in 1947, a small child's question provided the spark for an unprecedented idea that led to the birth of the Children's Care Hospital & School (CCHS). The child, looking out a window and watching children walking to school, asked nurse Irene Fisher Coon, "Why can't we go to school too?" Nurse Coon repeated the conversation to Dr. Guy Van Demark, South Dakota's only orthopedic surgeon. He and other concerned citizens began planning a pioneering integrated hospital and school for children with disabilities.
For three years committee members presented the novel proposal to build a combined hospital and school facility to countless groups across South Dakota. In response to requests for funds, school children gave
pennies: families, service clubs,
businesses, and major corporations contributed large and small cash gifts; and a landowner donated property for a building site. Over one-half million dollars in private contributions was raised.
On March 2, 1952, the nonprofit Crippled Children's Hospital & School opened its doors. Dr. Van Demark was appointed medical director, and Irene Coon was the head nurse. Thirty-two youngsters were admitted, all with polio-related or other disabilities. For 34 years Executive Director Dr. E.B. Morrison skillfully guided the hospital/educational facility through its infancy and maturation. When Dr. Guy Van Demark retired in 1958, his nephew, Dr. Robert Van Demark Sr., became medical director and served for 26 years.
The incidence of poliomyelitis declined radically after 1955 when the Salk vaccine became available. By 1961 the Sabin vaccine had eliminated the disease in the U.S. CCHS continued its mission to provide healthcare and education for children with special needs, including cerebral palsy, developmental challenges, or rehabilitation needs. In 1994 the institution was renamed Children's Care Hospital & School.
Founded by gifts from over 40,000 individual South Dakotans a half century ago, CCHS remains unmatched in this region.