WWII was behind us. Americans were trying to start living their lives after several years of watching their loved ones go off to war. One bright, cool day on January 7, 1947, Gloria was about to give birth to her precious baby girl. The only problem was that little Rita was almost 3 months too early. Nevertheless ,Rita came into this world in a town known for its ammunition plant that was built because of WWII. This town was Sylacauga, Alabama deep in the Heart of Dixie. Rita was a fighter and born in a time when medicine was making advances never before thought possible.
In fact critical care of premature babies was on the forefront of some of the first ICU type care available to humans.At approximately 3 pounds in weight, Rita clung to life in a commercially manufactured, mechanical incubator that had only in the last few years been accepted by physicians in the care of preemies. Piped into the incubator, Rita’s underdeveloped lungs were fed oxygen that was needed to keep her alive. The standard of care was so far in advance for premature babies that it was actually setting the tone for all critical care for adults and emergency rooms. Little Rita and her parents Roy and Gloria McGinnis were indeed blessed. What was interesting also about the place of her birth was that Sylacauga Hospital had just opened its doors in April of 1945 with the distinction of being the only non-military hospital built in the U.S. during World War II.
Indeed January 7th 1947 was a big day for Rita’s parents. However, Rita was born with her parents having no health insurance, so the Red Cross came in and saved the day and paid the hospital bill ! After Rita’s father Roy reenlisted into the Air Force, he began repaying that bill and in time the Red Cross said he had paid enough and that a grant would pay the rest of the bill.
When Roy returned to military life , he was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama at Maxwell AFB. Rita could now have her care in a military hospital. After Rita was approximately 6 months old, she had her first check up. To the shock of her parents, the doctor said Rita was blind. The military then made the decision to send her to Vanderbilt for further evaluation where the military eye doctor had went to school. The leading eye doctor and professor at Vanderbilt in Tennessee thought Rita had cataracts. He was wrong. With heavy hearts, Rita and her parents came back to Montgomery, Alabama. They then went to see a Dr. Karl Benkwith who in 1945, following WWII, opened the first ophthalmology office in Montgomery, Alabama. He stated that Rita did not have cataracts, but some kind of film over her eyes. Dr. Benkwith told SGT McGinnis he wanted to make an appointment for his daughter with one of the leading eye doctors in the nation. This was Dr. Algernon Reese of Columbia in New York City. Dr. Reese was so well known as he treated stars such as Bob Hope. Roy stated to Dr. Benkwith, “You get us that appointment and we will get there.” The appointment was made.
Roy McGinnis knew he needed to figure out how on a salary of $300 a month that he could get his daughter to New York. He knew the Red Cross had helped him before so he went back to them. He spoke with a Ms. Love who stated , “We will do all we can to get her to New York even if we have to break the bank!” The ball was rolling and the Red Cross was getting things moving.
In the meantime, Roy knew this would not get him down. He had been in alot bigger battles then this one. After all he had been shot down in his bomber plane in Germany during WWII and was a POW in Stalag 17. What more curves could life throw you?
After some time went by, Ms. Love notified the appropriate folks in the military about the circumstances and miracles began to happen to get Rita to New York. The commander in charge of Maxwell AFB or as known in the 1940’s as Maxwell Field where Roy was stationed authorized a flight to Mitchell AFB in New York so Rita could make her appointment in March of 1948. This commander of Maxwell Field and the Air University that the base was noted for was none other then General Muir Fairchild.
General Fairchild was one of the most highly respected military heros of that time. He was a pilot in WWI and had what many would call an outstanding military career. He no doubt was given the story of Sgt McGinnis’ own heroism in WWII and his POW status. If this played a role in Rita getting to New York, it was never told. However, Roy, Gloria, and Rita were on their way in a c-47 plane sitting in the General’s own private quarters of the plane flying to New York in March of 1948.
Rita was seen in New York by Dr. Reese. He gave a diagnoses of retrolental fibroplasia. In other words a film had covered over the back of her lens thereby making Rita go blind. Dr. Reese explained to her the McGinnis’s that he did not know what was caused Rita’s problem, but he promised he would tell them as soon as modern medicine figured this mystery out. Dr. Reese held to his promise and after several years in approximately 1951, Rita’s father Roy McGinnis recieved the answer from Dr. Reese in the form of a letter. It must be noted here that Dr. Reese had all ready written Roy several times to keep him up to date on the progress of understanding Rita’s blindness. In fact there was nothing short of an epidemic in the late 1940’s of babies going blind. The answer was finally discovered that 1950s and the condition was caused by the use of oxygen therapy to treat the immature lungs in premature infants. A matter of life or death caused the blindness. “It shocks you when you hear this, but what can you do.” Exactly what can you when no one knew?
I hope this personal story was interesting to you. I am proud to tell you that Rita is still alive today. Her father is my step dad and Rita is my sister. Roy expressed to me that he has not shared this story with many people. He states most people can not believe that a 4 star General would allow his own military aircraft to be used in such a manner. However, you see it was almost exactly the same time frame that another military officer by the name of Major Donley was travelling in a C-54. The C-54 he was traveling on was cold and unheated in a trip to from Oklahoma to Utah. There were three active duty military on this plane injured and they were freezing to death because the plane was not heated. It was at this time the major knew he wanted to make a difference and get our military to figure out a more humane way we can take our sick for appropriate care in the best place. After this flight, Major Donley was instrumental in modifying the first c-47 for air evac duty by 1949. It takes a few brave soldiers to do the right thing for our sick. General Fairchild saw the need for the air evac plane for little Rita and Major Donley saw this 2000 miles away in the inhumane way three injured soldiers were taken for treatment. Thank God Major Donley put into action a plan that eventually the military sunk their teeth into. Air Evac saved many a life starting as early as the 1950’s in Korea.
That was a wonderful story. I worked with Dr. Benkwith’s son some when I worked at Jackson Hospital and he is a fine man and doctor.
Really enjoyed reading this…and cute pic of your Mom and step Dad:-)
What an amazing story! The courage and love of a father and the generosity of a superior officer and the Red Cross as well! Thank you for sharing this.
Thank You, Alesia. After reading this wonderful family memory I realized that I knew Mr. McGinnis. He and his wife were customers at our local service station which I still manage with my family.
A great story. This was a reminder to me of when my sister Beth’s son, Jacob was born as a premie at 1.50 pounds 14 years ago, he needed oxygen also but they were very careful about how much because it could cause blindness. He is a miracle with no problems today and is a freshman in school now. Wow now I understand why. Thanks for sharing that.
Hi Alesia-I have not personally met you yet but presently work in Charlotte and Statesville, NC. My dad was in the Navy for 20yrs and he retired and settled our family in Montgomery, AL…..interestingly a good childhood friend of mine was from Sylacauga, AL and I visited there with her a few times….boy, if you know that place it is small town for sure. I want to say that this was a very interesting story….I grew up receiving medical care at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery too. I also worked in the healthcare for 18yrs and with a lot of Resp. Therapists….I found the blindness/side effect from oxygen therapy something I was familiar with from discussion with Resp. Therapists handling premies, etc. Also, I am finding your research into genealogy interesting because I did a papers for sociology and gerontology as I am a late in life college student. I learned I am the only one in my immediate family that has this interest but I could only get so far without paying for it and didn’t know if it was valid/worth it, etc. My Mom is 84yrs. old and part of the reason I accepted the Charlotte territory with my company to be with my Mom more….I find your blogs intriquing and a different angle on many things I have seen. Thank you for sharing.
Your email was so thoughtful and very kind. I too grew up getting healthcare at MAFB. I graduated from Lee in 1981. If you need help with your ancestry, I will help you. I do only volunteer . : )
I am retired from 30 years in nursing. God Bless. Alesia