Posts Tagged ‘Polio’

I am not showing this picture to brag about how I was raised to wear a dress rather than a life-preserver in a boat.  (We learned to swim when very young, as any Wisconsin child HAS TO, and there were adults in the boat.  I wasn’t out cruising alone.)  The photo simply depicts a summer day in 1941, when I was eight years old.

Summers were pleasant during June and July.  But the atmosphere changed every year from August 1st through the first autumn frost when parents lived in the very palpable fear of an ominous dark presence which literally hovered over the land.  Forgive me for mixing metaphors, when in retrospect I compare that dark shadow to the I Peter 5:8 “. . . . roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”

But this “lion” did not roar.  He came quietly, striking without warning, seeking to inflict horrific illness, to kill, or (in many cases) to disable victims with varying degrees of lifelong paralysis.  To have merely a mild attack from the lion, was to be blessed indeed.  And unlike our current worldwide pandemic, this illness did not typically strike the old folks with pre-existing co-morbidities.  The quintessential victims were often healthy and normally quite young—actually infants and children.  Thus one of the labels for poliomyelitis is “infantile paralysis”. *

This annual late-summer virus was rampant for decades prior to and during all of my childhood, right through the early years of Joe’s and my marriage—until the mid 1950s when we were starting our large family, and suddenly were able to rejoice in one of the greatest blessings known to parents:  the Salk Vaccine.  I shall never forget the tremendous relief and release that I experienced as a young mom, when the polio vaccine became available!

The first known epidemic of the disease in the USA occurred in Vermont in 1894 with 132 cases.  Over the following years the numbers increased.  In 1916 there were 27,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths in our nation, with over 2,000 deaths in New York City alone.  Our worst polio epidemic struck in 1952 when there were 57,628 cases reported, 3,145 deaths, and 21,269 cases of paralysis in the wake of the disease.  Meanwhile, when I was in High School, three members of our football team contracted polio.  One died, one was left with a paralyzed arm, and one had a very slight case.

Thus, with all the understandable and perfectly valid bruhaha concerning Covid-19 I’ve wondered why doctors, media personnel, and government leaders have—for purposes of comparison and contrast—referred to yearly influenza, the Spanish flu, Sars, and Swine flu but never (as far as I know) to the deadliest, most insidious virus in our nation’s recent history—one that focused on robbing children and youth of their very lives or healthy mobility.

Perhaps most individuals in public communication today are too young to remember, or even know about, that annual “beast” who made late summer a time of dread and tragedy for thousands of Americans.  But I seriously doubt many individuals remain who recall the Spanish flu, either.  As for later epidemics, with the exception of yearly influenza, they have come once—not year after year after year after year.

Something to mull over, as we continue today’s practical and necessary preventative measures:  social distancing, avoiding crowds, and washing hands for twenty-two seconds (which hopefully we have been doing most of our lives).

Just a little perspective, please!

Margaret L. Been — March 17th, 2020

*One adult from my childhood era to reportedly have been stricken with polio was Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he was 39 years in 1921.  From his disease, FDR was paralyzed from the waist down.  However, in recent years medical researchers have questioned the polio diagnosis, believing the distinct features of Roosevelt’s paralysis coupled with the very clear onset of his illness more typically fit Guillian-Barre Syndrome.  

Regardless of the exact cause of FDR’s battle with pain and paralysis. it is well documented that these challenges helped him to become even more of a dedicated fighter, a quality which characterized his time as President—including The Great Depression years and most of World War II.

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Although most of my childhood recollections are pleasant, today I am sharing one which is not—my memory of that frightening shadow which touched down each year in early August as I was growing up, and mysteriously lifted weeks later with the first frost.

Our oldest child was born in 1954.  A year later, Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the vaccine which would prevent devastating illness and save countless lives.  Until the vaccine was released in 1955, polio was considered to be America’s greatest fear, apart from atomic bomb.

As a mother of 6, grandmother of 13, and great-grandmother of (soon to be) 14 children, I am eternally grateful for God’s intervention through medical science—and for the researcher, Jonas Salk, who enabled us to raise our children in a polio-free environment!


Summer until . . . .

Spilling from school, we scattered over sidewalks

like marbles rolling from a tattered pouch

and June days unraveled to “Moonlight, Starlight,

have you seen the ghost tonight?”

July exploded, with night skies draping color trails,

afternoons melting like ice cream in sticky hands,

while we believed that summer was forever—

summer until . . . .

August came quietly.  Time awakened—

stretching, turning corners, whispering

ominous innuendoes of change.

And then September, unleashing terror

as the paralyzing hand moved among us

maiming, murdering, destroying illusions of summer–

summer until . . . .

Margaret Longenecker Been, ©2010


P. S.  Although the paralyzing hand has been mercifully removed, reverberations go on.  As a child growing up in the 1940s, one of my friends recovered from a case of polio—and she was apparently healthy for decades.  But now in later life, this friend is stricken with PPS—post polio sydrome.  

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, “Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a condition that affects polio survivors years after recovery from an initial acute attack of the poliomyelitis virus.  PPS is mainly characterized by new weakening in muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection and in muscles that seemingly were unaffected.  Symptoms include slowly progressive muscle weakness and unaccustomed fatigue (both generalized and muscular)—and, at times, muscle atrophy is common . . . .  According to estimates by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 440,000 polio survivors in the United States may be at risk for PPS.  Researchers . . . estimate that the condition affects 25 percent to 50 percent of these survivors, or possibly as many as 60 percent . . . .”

With love and prayers, I dedicate this entry to my dear friend with PPS.  May God fill her and surround her with His comfort, and with better days!  MLB

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