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What it’s like to survive polio and COVID-19 

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Sixty-five years ago, in 1955, I was diagnosed with polio. I was two years old, so I was unaware of what it meant to have been infected with the poliovirus, but I became more aware of it in subtle ways as I got older. And at some point, I understood what my mother meant when she said I was “one of the lucky ones.”

My mother came from Jersey City, New Jersey, and she sounded like it all her life, aided and abetted by a daily regimen of unfiltered Kool cigarettes. She drove a supply truck as a civilian during World War II and delighted in telling a tale about a GI who tried to “get fresh” with her when she gave him a lift back to the base. When she told him she was married and her husband was deployed overseas, he said, “Baby, what’re you saving it for — the worms?”

She stopped the truck and told him, “Ride in back, buster!” I have no doubt that she used an expletive, although she never employed one in the retelling, Jersey accent notwithstanding. But she still thought “saving it for the worms” was the funniest line she had ever heard. She was a woman who could take things in stride, the quintessential “tough cookie.”

But there was one recollection that could unravel my mother like no other — the one that involved her youngest son being diagnosed with polio and the palpable fear that stalked parents across the country during the summers of the early 1950s. She could not stop her voice from cracking when she spoke about that time. That, along with her warnings about staying out of “polio puddles” after it rained, shaped my awareness of how frightening the epidemic had been.

Among my childhood memories, getting the oral polio vaccine is as vivid as the classroom drills that taught us to seek safety under our desks in case of a nuclear attack. While I can now joke about how sturdy school desks must have been back then, there’s no amusement in my recollection of lining up outside the local firehouse for the Sabin sugar cube — that was serious, important business. I knew it then, and I know it now.

My appreciation for having survived polio faded away over time, but returned in force about 12 years ago when I began writing for Rotary magazine. I had assumed polio had been eradicated — or, more accurately, I didn’t think about it. I have since had the opportunity to get to know, and be awed by, some of the Rotarian volunteers who are working to achieve that goal.

One of the lucky ones

Now, as the novel coronavirus makes its way across the world, I feel a renewed gratitude for what it means to be one of the lucky ones — and a deeper understanding of how terrifying life was for many people six decades ago. As a 67-year-old former smoker, I’m among those now considered vulnerable — I have two adult children to keep reminding me of that — but I’m also among the privileged. My wife and I are able to work from home, we live in a single-family house with creature comforts, and we can afford to practice social distancing with little sacrifice.

Although adults were not immune to polio — President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously contracted the disease at age 39 — most of its victims were young children. Today, COVID-19 appears to pose the most danger to people over 60 — that is, the same group that polio targeted 65 years ago. “There was a high level of fear in the country then, very similar to what we have now,” says Cort Vaughan, who is one of those volunteers I’m awed by. When we spoke in April, Vaughan and his wife, Tonya, had recently returned from participating in a polio vaccination campaign in India.

A member of the Rotary Club of Greater Bend, Oregon, and a past End Polio Now coordinator, Vaughan began his work on the polio front before he was even aware of it: He was a March of Dimes poster child in Riverside, California, when he was three years old. He still has a copy of an article from a local newspaper with a photo of him dressed as a cowboy guarding the spare change that people contributed during a fundraising drive in 1955.

Vaughan doesn’t remember contracting polio at age two in October 1954, but, he says, “I have clear memories of my parents relating stories about it, and I could feel the emotion in their voices about what they went through. For my mother, it was like she was reliving the fear and anxiety of having her child stricken with a potentially deadly disease. Their stories were so vivid, so palpable, they almost became my own memories.”

The darkest story starts with his mother discovering one morning that her toddler was suddenly unable to walk, calling the doctor, and rushing him to the hospital. “If you had to go to the hospital, there was a high probability of being crippled for life,” Vaughan says. “Once my parents took me there, it was out of their hands.” At that time, polio wards restricted visitors, and Vaughan’s mother was desperate to be with him. “She discovered a women’s group that was sending volunteers to hospitals. She joined the Junior League primarily to get to see me.”

Vaughan’s illness paralyzed his right leg from the knee down, requiring him to wear a brace and sentencing him to a childhood in which frequent trips to the hospital for physical therapy replaced playing outdoors with friends. “I didn’t feel lucky then, but looking back, now I do,” he says. He also believes that the knowledge that comes from living with the scars of polio has heightened his grasp of what is required to overcome the current pandemic. “I know what it’s like to face a hidden threat, and I understand the need for people to stay vigilant and work together to prevent the spread,” he says. “I was defending the stay-at-home order in Oregon early on, when friends and relatives were thinking it was not really serious.”

Breaking the silence around polio

If the term “tough cookie” ever makes it back into common parlance, Carol Ferguson could be its poster adult. It wasn’t until her late 40s that she realized the pain and muscle weakness she was experiencing were post-polio syndrome linked to contracting the virus four decades earlier. Six years ago, Ferguson enlisted the help of three other polio survivors and five friends to launch the Pennsylvania Polio Survivors Network, a volunteer advocacy organization that shares people’s stories, provides information about post-polio syndrome, and lobbies legislators to increase awareness of polio and of the need to prevent infectious diseases through immunization.

Ferguson, a member of the Rotary Club of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and District 7430 PolioPlus subcommittee chair, says the stories she began hearing at the start of the first wave of COVID-19 bear an eerie resemblance to those her fellow polio survivors tell: a girl hospitalized at age five who remembers weekly visits from her parents during which she could only wave to them through a window; a two-year-old boy who was turned away from a hospital because no beds were available.

Ferguson’s own story is revealing for what her parents didn’t tell her. “When I was two years old, I had the ‘summer grippe,’ which we now know to be polio,” she says. “Ten years later, a doctor examined me and said I had a ‘polio foot.’ That was the only time that word was mentioned. My mother lived to be 92, but she didn’t speak about polio until shortly before she died. My father died having never spoken the word. I realize now that this is a reflection of the fear that they felt.”

Ferguson feels no such need for silence. Earlier this year, she spearheaded an initiative, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Immunization Coalition and local Rotary clubs, to produce a vaccination information and resource card to distribute to new parents in the state.

When Jonas Salk announced the success of his historic vaccine trial in April 1955, there was widespread acceptance of the need for mass immunizations. At some point in the future, a modern-day Salk or Albert Sabin will emerge to announce a vaccine to control the spread of COVID-19. But it’s anyone’s guess how widely accepted that vaccine will be.

Although we now have the benefit of communications technology that people in the 1950s could hardly imagine, that technology can also allow misinformation — and disinformation — to spread as rapidly as a virus itself. Ferguson is hopeful that credible and accurate information about vaccines will prevail. Oh, do I hope she’s right.

• This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Rotary magazine.

• Paul Engleman is a polio survivor and a frequent contributor to Rotary magazine.

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