Friday, May 1, 2009

Polio was the Feared Scourge of my Childhood

In the 1940s and 1950s, we had the polio epidemics. Hence the establishment of the March of Dimes, which to this day exists for children with birth and developmental defects. I remember those white cardboard cards at school with slots for us to slip in the dimes we brought from home. Dimes, of course, went a lot further back then.

No one was sure how polio was transmitted, except it seemed to have something to do with crowds. It hit mostly children and younger people. A former colleague of mine contracted it in 1942 while her husband was overseas during World War II. She was in her 20's with two small children. Her mother took care of the children while she went to Warm Springs for the warm water therapy that was proving beneficial. She recovered and returned to her home with a brace on her leg and a crutch that she needed for the rest of her life. She couldn't even get up at night to go to the bathroom without her brace. But she worked, cooked amazingly, had a beautiful garden and reared two outstanding children. She learned to cope, you see. Since her husband died in the war, her own survival meant her children were not orphaned, a good thing.

Seeing persons with the permanently atrophied arms and or legs used to be common. Now many of you have never seen a polio victim. In extreme cases, some few persons survived in an iron lung - an electronic, coffin-like device where the whole body except for the head was inside with the machine forcing the lungs in and out. Such persons suffered such severe paralysis, their lungs couldn't function without mechanical help. Some recovered enough to get out of the machines. Others didn't.

It was impossible at the onset to tell who would live, and with what degree of paralysis, and who would die. Doctors could do almost nothing for those infected. No, it didn't seem to hit all the children in the family, usually just one. And then, in the next epedemic, it might take another, or not.

We never had an epidemic in Alamogordo, New Mexico, but El Paso, Texas, 90 miles away, did have them. The epidemic, of course swept across the Rio Grande to the sister city of Juarez, Mexico. We had two or three victims in Alamogordo, but they mostly had been somewhere the epidemic was known to be. Our small town could not manage such serious illness, and they were transferred to the El Paso hospitals.

I remember one particular summer in 1953 when polio raged in El Paso. As a kid, I didn't really understand what the fuss was all about, but I remember I couldn't go swimming that summer, and I couldn't go to the movies. In August, when it was particularly bad in the distant city, my parents seriously discussed whether to attend church or not. Mother was a preacher's daughter. My dad taught Sunday School. This was extremely serious stuff that they would consider staying home, and it got my attention. They decided we would continue to attend, but come straight home afterwards.

It was suspected gamma globulin shots might increase immunity to the disease, so for years, I had that huge, painful shot in my buttocks each summer, even when polio was not epidemic. I know others my age who had the shots, too. It was later discovered these painful shots did not help at all. It was something our parents could do. SOMEthing. There was so little else.

Jonas Salk was a hero to the world when he developed a vaccine for the polio virus. I was a freshman in college in 1961 when I finally had the opportunity to walk over to a neighborhood school from my college room and take my first dose dribbled on a sugar cube. There were three doses to be taken, as I remember. Even at 18, I had the sense to know I really needed to get those doses, and I did.

I never knew anyone who died from it, although I heard about the daughter of someone my parents knew who was in an iron lung. I had classmates occasionally with a withered arm or a leg brace. I didn't meet the colleague with the leg brace until 1965.

Polio, however, was such a devastating disease that we were all aware of it. We feared it.

I hear 30,000 people die every year from the flu, mostly the elderly or already debilitated. I have no idea how many of these people who die have had flu shots. Certainly, some of them have had the shots, get sick and die anyway. That's said.

My impression is that one reason for the fear of the H1N1 strain is the lack of a vaccine. I understand medical people are also wary of how contagious it is, or how virulent. We still have a tough time fighting viruses. We will get these answers, and in the meantime the precautions--handwashing, not congregating, etc., etc., etc. --either seems to be working or it was a weak virus in the first place.

New viruses arise all the time. Polio is mostly gone, but AIDS is here. Medical officials around the world are convinced that, sooner or later, we will have some illness that will kill many people. That seems logical.

But I remember the hot summers when I couldn't go swimming, or to the air-conditioned movie theater for my whole summer vacation because of polio. In the United States, much of our population has no memory of deadly epidemics. For those of us who do remember, it was so long ago that perhaps we have just been jarred awake.

Life changes. Old dangers pass. New ones come along. And throughout, the basic nature of human beings stays the same.


JPG said...

That was an excellent story and brought back memories of my own childhood. One thing, though - - I recall getting injections of the Salk vaccine in 1954, late in my fifth-grade year, in the cafeteria at Ascarate Elementary School in El Paso. I believe this was early in the field trials of the new vaccine, and it makes sense that ELP would have been a testing venue, due to it being one of the epidemic areas during that period.

The Sabin oral vaccine was administered to over half the US population in the 1962--1965 period.(Wikipedia) I don’t remember in which of those years I took the sugar cubes, but it was while I was in university in Fort Worth.

clairz said...

Thank you for this very interesting post. It brought back lots of memories. I was a child in San Francisco at the time and didn't really understand the meaning of paralysis. I thought it meant that whatever position you were in when it struck would be the position you would be stuck in forever. So, every night when trying to go to sleep I spent a lot of time rearranging myself in what I figured would be the most advantageous "layout"--should I have my arms at my sides, or should my hands be clasped together? Should my legs be straight, or bent? Naturally, in the way of a child, I never asked anyone if my ideas were correct...

night lightning woman said...

Thanks for both. We were children, so we had such an incomplete picture. I just remember the fear I sensed from my parents. It does make sense El Paso was one of the first treatment sites. I really did get my first treatment in the fall of 1961 at an elementary school near Southern Methodist University. A humber of my classmates had already had the whole series, but my opportunity came in Dallas County, Texas.
Clairz, I'm glad my imagination wasnot as good as yous. I would have been a lot more scared. I remember the atomic bomb drills, too, where we ducked under our desks. Those didn't scare me, either. I just thought it was a fun break in readin', writin' and 'rithmetic.

clairz said...

Funny you should mention the atomic bomb drills. I wrote a post on my blog on that very thing, called Duck and Cover; Memories of the Atomic Age (

Here's a line from the film made to instruct schoolchildren about procedures to follow when the bomb was dropped: [The bomb can come] on a beautiful spring day...but no matter where [children] go or what they do they must always try to remember what to do if the atomic bomb explodes right then. It's a bomb! Duck and cover!.

Zdogk9 said...

I remember in the summer of '54 I was sent off to visit my Grandfather for a week. While I was gone my sister and two other friends of our family came down with polio. A man my mother thought enough to bring home to meet us who'd been deployed to Korea also came down with it, he died. I didn't see home for two months.
The man who eventually became my step father had contracted scarlet fever as a child, complications from this killed him when he was 52.
Nearly everyone I know of my age group has a scar on their left shoulder from their smallpox vaccination.
I've more than a few scars from chicken pox.
I remember the vaccine was given to us when I was in the second grade about two months after my sister, Marge, Ann, and Mel were struck with polio.

night lightning woman said...

To zdogk9--Wow! thank you so much for your post. That was up close and visceral. Hope your sister and friends are still around and dealing well with post-polio syndrome.
I don't fault WHO for going on the alert so early with H1N1. Sooner or later, another deadly, even highly contagious, virus is going to come along. So many people living today have no idea what that is like, especially in the US.I have no doubt folks will quit whining and rediscover their backbones when this happens. I'd just as soon this didn't happen in my lifetime, but it WILL happen. I was heartened that enough folks believed the alert enough that most kids out of schools here that closed were kept home, and people around here have reported increased handwashing.

Viagra said...

I am so thankful that we have vaccines for this disease now.