Learning to walk, again, Ardmore resident and granddaughter take physical therapy full-circle in Ardmore.
There’s youth in the eyes of Ardmore resident Marolyn Dragg, as she focuses on the ground beneath her.
She lurches forward, feeling the full-weight of her 70-year battle with polio press against her feet, a brittle collection of bones and metal, constantly reminding her the next step could be her last.
With muscle-starved legs, it wouldn’t take much to send Dragg’s body crumpling directly to the pavement, shattering the already mangled bones in her feet. It’s happened before.
“I don’t fall, I fold – like an accordion,” she said.
She didn’t fold this time.
After six months spent recumbent and resigned to a fate of never walking again, Dragg swings one leg ahead of the other, again and again, inching through the parking lot until the motorized wheelchair strapped to the back of her minivan is but a distant memory.
“Nana,” her physical therapist cheered, seeing her patient and grandma standing upright for the first time since November. “You’re walking.”
Every Friday afternoon for two months, Excel Physical therapist Heather Dragg has worked with her grandma Marolyn Dragg — helping her rediscover the ability to walk.
In the most recent session, with ‘Hadder’ watching ‘Nana’s’ back to catch her in case of a fall, the elder Dragg logged eight laps around Excel, bringing two generations of physical therapists full-circle in Ardmore.
In 1980, Marolyn Dragg opened Capernaum Physical Therapy — the first dedicated outpatient Physical therapy clinic in Ardmore. A clinic Marolyn’s husband David Dragg said was prescribed by God,
For 23 years, it’s where people with broken bones and bodies found modern care, Christian music and the bustle and hustle of a seasoned therapist, healing through faith and bearing witness to the power of therapy — sharing her testimony of overcoming paralysis from polio to eventually walk and live a full life.
It was a special place for many, Dragg said — a place of healing and joy.
For Heather, it was where her future took root. Where she set her eyes on the physical therapist and woman she would aspire to become.
Marolyn had a similar moment in her childhood, albeit in slightly different circumstances.
Instead of a place of comfort and joy, Maroyln’s journey into physical therapy consisted of five months in a hospital bed, surrounded by the haunting weeze of the iron lung.
In the summer of 1948, four years before the discovery of a vaccine that all but eradicated the virus in the United States, the Polio Epidemic burned through the South, reaching Odessa, Texas.
That year, thousands of kids were caught in the immobilizing flames of the virus. Two of which played baseball in Wynnewood that summer.
One was Marolyn Dragg, just eight years old at the time.
Marolyn said she got a sore throat and a fever. No big deal at first, but she wasn't getting better. She was too weak to get out of bed.
Once hearing about her worsening condition, Dragg said a doctor who lived next door performed a spinal tap
The results confirmed the worst of everyone’s fears.
Dragg said her life was swiftly uprooted.
“It was a major upheaval,” Marolyn Dragg said. “I was a tomboy. I played football, baseball and basketball. I had an older brother and I'd run with him and his friends and I was as good as all of them. I did everything the boys did, and suddenly, I couldn’t do anything.”
Dragg laid across the backseat of the family car as her family rushed her to the closest place that would take her — Parkland Hospital in Dallas.
At Parkland, she was placed in the isolation ward, surrounded by rows of children, living at the mercy of the iron lung.
Dragg doesn’t remember much from that time, aside from feeling scared and alone.
But one memory she held onto was seeing her parents outside a hospital window.
“I saw them on the fire escape,” she said. “They pretty much camped in the parking lot, waiting for a chance to see me. Up and down the steps they went."
Thankfully, Dragg was cleared to leave the isolation ward after two weeks and moved to a hospital room that would be home for for the next five months.
At the time, all doctors could do was give her an IV and start rebuilding her strength through physical therapy.It was a painstaking, transformative process, Dragg said.
When she began therapy, Dragg could move her head from side to side, and if her hand was raised from her side to her stomach, she said she had enough strength to slowly crawl her fingers up to her chest.
Beyond that, she was completely paralyzed.
After five months of therapy, though, Dragg said she discovered her strength and purpose.
”When I left the hospital, I was in braces and crutches, but I was walking,” Marolyn Dragg said. “A nurse rode me out of the hospital and I told her, 'when I grow up, I’m going to be a physical therapist.' That never, ever changed.”
When she returned home, Dragg continued therapy, eventually finding the ability to walk without the aid of braces and crutches.
She learned to walk with her hips.
“You could see me coming,” Marolyn said.
Learning to live
Though Dragg only spent two weeks in isolation at the hospital, she soon learned the social isolation and stigma from polio was a life sentence.
Her hip-centric stride was distinct, different. Walking anywhere in public — especially from class to class — post-polio was physically and emotionally tough, Dragg said.
When she walked past, Dragg said a hush would roll over the hallways. She learned to look down to avoid the stares. School bullies, curious children and complete strangers would mock her.
Most of them would wait to make fun of her behind her back, Dragg said. A few didn't, and many assumed she was mentally limited.
"It wasn't easy," Dragg said.
She never stopped pushing forward, though.
She had limitations, sure, but Dragg said she didn't let it stop her from experiencing life like anyone else.
She found her own way of doing things and even got back to playing her favorite sport.
“She is the toughest women in the world,” Marolyn’s son David M. Dragg said. “As kids, she played baseball with us. She would lean on her bat, propped against the plate, and still get off a swing somehow. We were kids, so we weren’t throwing heat, but still, she could hit. She’d get up and down the base-paths too. Crawling on her hands and knees. She is tough as nails."
"The woman found a way.”
Dragg found her way through recess, middle school P.E. and across the stage at her high school graduation. Next came the University of Oklahoma, where Dragg began to fulfill the promise she made to her nurse 10 years earlier.
Before moving to Norman, Dragg's advisor in high school set her up with a physical therapist to determine if she was physically capable to meet the demands of the field.
Despite walking up stairs on her own power and completing several tasks, Dragg didn’t get the answer she was looking for.
“She told me, ‘honey, you don’t have what it takes,’” Dragg said.
For a while, despite earning all her PT School credits aside from her internships, that prediction looked like it might come true.
Before graduating, Dragg married David, a Marine who also had parents from Ardmore. And for 10 years, she started a new life, never returning to finish her degree, much less the pursuit of her childhood dream.
Dragg said they were different people before becoming Christians.
They struggled to stay above water as a couple, fighting upstream with jobs, two kids, a house and no purpose, Dragg said. When things got choppy, she said David turned to alcohol, a crutch he’d used off and on on since he was 15 years old.
“We were lost,” Dragg said. “We didn’t have direction.”
Jesus took the wheel in 1975.
After surrendering control, Dragg said everything fell into place. The couple became full-time Jesus freaks. Something that’s still true today.
Their home ministry in Ardmore still welcomes any looking for guidance.
Dragg said if the door of the little white house with giant red bold letters reading, “JESUS!” across the porch isn’t closed, Marolyn and David are open for business.
“We have disciples come by all the time,” Dragg said.
Capernaum and Back
In the late 70s, a purposeful life guided the Dragg’s into healing soles (and other bones, muscles and joints) with soul.
She finished her degree and began working with burn victims in Oklahoma City before coming to Ardmore to work at Memorial Hospital of Southern Oklahoma, now known as Mercy Hospital. A few years later, her husband David said God told him to quit his job as a care salesman.
He didn't get told why, he said, but he listened. After quitting, the couple began building their own Capernaum in Ardmore.
In therapy, Dragg realized her Polio, something that was once a hindrance that kept her on the fringes of society, at times literally isolating her from the world, was a gift.
“If I could do it, they had to be able to do it,” Dragg said. “I had unique insight into recovery. It helped me get through.”
It opened the doors to her testimony and made it easy to get through to people in similar boats, she said.
“I've never seen her let any limitation be a limitation,” Heather Dragg said. “It just shows her strength.”
An able bodied person might not understand, but Dragg did. She has been down a tough road. Not only did she experience it, she fought past it.
And what was once an insult, having people mock her walk, Dragg said she saw her grandchildren — too young to have cruel intentions — walking like ‘Nana’ around her house.
“They would walk like me,” Dragg said.
Currently, two of those grandchildren living in Ardmore followed Nana’s path. One works as a nurse practitioner at Southern Oklahoma Women’s Health. The other is a physical therapist at Excel.
“There's a lot to live up to coming to Ardmore and into this field with my last name,” Dragg said. “I’ve had patients that she’s treated at Capernaum — seeing how many people's lives she touched and continues to touch inspires me.”
A lot has changed in physical therapy between the two generations of Dragg’s careers in Ardmore.
Graduating from PT school earns you a Doctorate instead of Bachelors Degree and some methods and techniques have evolved.
While Heather Dragg said she was too young and too far away to glean her grandmothers technical knowledge, leaving Oklahoma for Tennessee at four years old and only recently moving back after accepting the position with Excel Therapy in 2016, she has lifted some of 'Nana’s' tricks of the trade.
"Nana tried to heal the whole person,” Heather Dragg said. “I try to do the same. Physical therapy is about 60 percent physical. If you just address the joint or the tear or whatever it is, you’re selling your patients short.”
“You have to find what motivates them. What they fear, and what makes them tick, To do that you have to know patients, and care about them,” the physical therapist added. ”I love getting to know my patients, and they know me, too. We have that in common.”
Nana agrees. Before she was the inspiration. Now, she is a beneficiary.
“I wouldn’t be up and walking if it wasn’t for Heather pushing me,” Marolyn Dragg said.
“I feel younger,” she added. “More confident. I figured I was too old to come back again. Too old and too weak. I was wrong. David even said I look younger, too.”