Polio Summer

Fearing Polio

That summer, none of us kids in Calgary were allowed to go to the movies on Saturday mornings. Nor were we allowed to take the shortcut to the school playground past the shallow pond that people in the West call a slough. And even if the day was a scorcher, we couldn’t go swimming in any of the public swimming pools.

It was 1953. And that summer, not for the first time, polio was lurking in crowds, in water, in god knows where else. All our parents were afraid, and we were too.

Everyone knew that polio mostly affected children. Lots of kids got sick. Some died; even more were crippled. Just down the street from us, David, a boy younger than me, had fallen sick. Now he wore a heavy metal brace and lurched when he walked.

Even scarier were the pictures of iron lungs. We kids imagined ourselves spending the rest of our lives inside a huge iron cocoon, with nothing but our heads sticking out, our bodies trapped inside, helpless, forever. The thought terrified me.

The iron lung. The braces.

Then one evening, my older brother Vance, fifteen,  fell desperately sick with a high fever and a stiff neck. And before we three younger kids understood what was happening, he was gone–to the Red Cross Crippled Children’s Hospital. He had polio too.

For a few days my parents were afraid that he would die. They barely left his side. A doctor came to our house–we were quarantined if I remember rightly–and gave us shots of gamma globulin. I knew it wasn’t a vaccine, that we might get polio too, but I gathered it was better than nothing.

In the first few weeks Vance was at the hospital, the staff used the Sister Kenny method to treat him, the most promising and newest treatment available, so our parents told us. Nurses placed hot, damp, flannel packs on his body and stretched and massaged his muscles.

Even though I was only ten, that method sounded primitive, like being treated with mustard poultices or castor oil. And this was the best modern medicine could provide?! Apparently it was. Before Sister Kenny, polio victims might be immobilized in plaster casts. That treatment was worse.

The first good news was that my brother was going to live. The second was that he could breathe on his own. He wouldn’t have to go inside an iron lung. The bad news was that he was paralyzed from the neck down. We could only hope that he would improve.

We kids couldn’t visit him. In those days, kids were never allowed to visit hospitals. Everyone knew that we carried all sorts of nasty germs in our little bodies that we might pass on to the sick.

Vance was in the hospital for sixteen months. I saw him once, at the other end of a long hallway, safely out of reach, sitting in a wheelchair. And once my father and I rode horses to the lawn outside the hospital to amuse the kids inside. Goldie, the horse I often rode, could stand on her hind legs, like Roy Roger’s horse, Trigger. Underneath the windows, I made Goldie stand on her hind legs, over and over again. My brother was one of the faces at the windows, too far away for me to see.

When Vance finally came home, he was a pale, skinny, slightly lopsided teenager. Forever after, he would lean in the direction of his cane. His chest looked oddly caved in. Polio had affected many muscles in his body.

He would need a cane for the rest of his life. He would always have to pick up his leg to get into a car. He coughed softly and oddly, his damaged chest muscles never letting him cough thoroughly. He couldn’t attend high school sports events: he wasn’t strong enough to sit through the games, and the benches were too hard for his skinny butt. My father had a special leather book bag made for him that he could sling over his shoulders so he could carry his books.

But he was lucky. He could walk and he didn’t have braces.

He never talked about polio and I never asked. Once I reached in a drawer to get a bottle opener for him and my gentle brother snapped at me, perhaps for the only time in my life.

“Do you think I’m a cripple? Do you think I can’t get it for myself?!”

He had a set of barbells in his bedroom, and he worked out almost every night, striving to become closer to normal. It seemed unfair to me that he had to work so hard but could never be strong again. I couldn’t see that all his work made much of a difference.

He and I sat in the kitchen most evenings and played chess. I hated chess, but I loved him.

He went to university, studied engineering. After he graduated, he became a patent examiner and then a patent agent. My parents worried about him–he seemed too lonely. They were happy when he married Nora, a very nice woman. They never had children of their own, but he was a loving stepfather to her two girls. He was always kind, but always quiet and a little remote. I suspect he was never quite happy.

In the last years of his life, his back became more and more bent. Post-polio syndrome made life more difficult than it had always been.

One night, in his sixties, he suddenly died. He’d had the flu. The doctor suspected a heart attack. But I wondered whether or not his weak chest muscles, so incapable of coughing, had just not been strong enough to deal with a bad case of the flu.

It still seems ironic to me that on March 26, 1953, just months before my brother got sick, Dr. Jonas Salk had announced that he’d successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis. The vaccine wasn’t approved and an inoculation campaign begun until 1955–too late for Vance.

Finally a vaccine for polio

I remember hearing the news that an effective vaccine had been developed. I felt elated and relieved. A dreadful killer and crippler of children had been conquered.

In the years since then, polio has been almost eradicated, but not quite. The numbers are creeping up a little in Africa and South Asia from an all-time low. People’s fears and resistance to vaccination are part of the problem.

No case of polio has been reported in North America for years. Still, a report by WHO, the World Health Organization warns that

As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. In 2009-2010, 23 previously polio-free countries were re-infected due to imports of the virus.

We should be vigilant. Diseases that were almost unheard of in the States for awhile, like mumps, measles, and whooping cough, are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly forty per cent of parents have delayed or declined one or more of the shots recommended for their children.

Frankly, I have trouble understanding this. I suppose none of today’s young parents who choose to spare their children from improbable dangers, their fears fueled by shaky science and internet rumors, had a brother who suffered for a lifetime after one polio summer.


Copyright by Margaret French, September 2011