A seemingly innocent peanut triggered a special relationship between Jean Wiethop and St. Louis Children's Hospital that began 80 years ago. In 1931, 4-year-old Jean swallowed a peanut that "went down the wrong pipe."
The peanut lodged in Jean's left lung and soon caused a serious infection. Yet antibiotics had only recently been discovered and weren't available for patient use in 1931 (clinical usage of antibiotics didn't begin until 1946).
Over four years, Jean had regular doctor visits to monitor the infection and was frequently hospitalized at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Each time Jean's infection flared, her devoted mother, Jennie Walter, would bundle up the pale little girl and trek to the hospital, which involved taking two buses, a streetcar, walking two blocks and catching yet another bus before finally arriving at their destination.
The primary treatment for Jean was removing fluid from her lungs through a needle in her side. "My doctor always put me at ease when I saw him," Jean recalls. "I practically grew up in St. Louis Children's Hospital."
As a happy-go-lucky, self-described "wild child," Jean took the ordeal in stride no matter how sick she was. While in the hospital, most children stayed in a ward, one large room. Jean tells tales of how she initiated wheelchair races, played football in the ward and often comforted other children. She fondly recalls "Charlie," the janitor in the ward. "Everybody loved Charlie and he always had a big smile for us. When he came in, we all clamored, Me first!' so he would swing our bed around to mop the floor underneath it."
Jean also spent months at Ridge Farm, St. Louis Children's Hospital's convalescent facility located near Valley Park outside St. Louis. This facility's country setting with fresh air and sunshine was believed to be beneficial for the children's health. (The facility, funded by hospital supporters, closed in 1946.)
Despite Jean's ongoing care, the infection was progressing and affecting a larger part of her lung. In 1936, when Jean was 8, doctors decided it was time to remove the lung. Yet the rambunctious Jean bounced back quicklyeven attempting flips in her hospital bed.
Life After Surgery
Living with one lung has never slowed Jean down. In her 20s, she began competing in gymnastics and track and field. She was a natural, as doctors marveled at her health. She continued in track and field until age 58. In 1955, Jean married Ted Wiethop and had two sons, Ted and Chuck.
Today at a robust age 83, Jean still hosts large family gatherings at her lovingly maintained home in south St. Louis County. She credits her active lifestyle with staying healthy all these years. She also credits St. Louis Children's Hospital and her mother's devotion. "St. Louis Children's Hospital is one of the best hospitals there is and it was my mom's passion," Jean says.
Giving Back for Mom
Jean was sick during the Depression, and like many families then, the Walters had little money. The hospital allowed the Walters to just pay what they could. Many of Jean's eight brothers and sisters were also treated at Children's Hospital with pneumonia during this time.
"My mom always wanted to find a way to give back to the hospital after what they gave to me," Jean says. The family helped Jennie in her quest. In 1986, in honor of Jennie Walter's 84th birthday, the family of nine children, 44 grandchildren and 48 great-grandchildren together purchased a special heart bed for the hospital. "My mom was so thrilled," Jean says.
Over the years, Jean has also made several tribute gifts to the hospital. "It makes me feel good to give back for my mom," she says. "I also tell my kids and other family members if they want to donate somewhere, choose St. Louis Children's Hospital."
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