A couple of weeks ago, Susie and I took our granddaughter on an outing. It was sort of a self serving trip because I remember how much I enjoyed learning history and since she is getting old enough to appreciate this subject, it seemed like a good thing to do.
I wanted to tell you about our trip to see and experience a bit of history that was very personal to me. I guess everything I wanted to say was said in my columns for the last two weeks so I’ll just put them here where you can read them:
Last week, my wife, Susie and I took our granddaughter to the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History center, the home of the Indiana Historical Society. We were there to see an exhibit on the great flood of 1913 which devastated a good part of the Midwest states, including Indiana and Indianapolis. The exhibit is a part of their ‘You are there’ series in which visitors, along with the folks telling the story, become participants in the narrative which portrayed a relief center where folks who had lost their homes or other possessions could sign up for food and other basic necessities. The idea was to give folks a taste of the experiences involved in that disaster and the presentation did just that.
Continuing our tour of the ‘You are there’ portrayals, we went across the hall to another demonstration of another tragedy, one in which I didn’t need any outside reminders of its effects; the Polio epidemic and the subsequent development of the vaccine that finally ended it. The exhibit was celebrating the 58th anniversary of the release of Jonas Salk’s Vaccine On April 12th of 1955 and was built around the effort that the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company performed in producing several million doses of the vaccine in time for the release.
While Susie and our granddaughter talked to the actors who remained in character for the entire time we were there, I wandered over to a small display that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. It was the symbol of the March of Dimes, one of the millions of small collection boxes that were shaped like a miniature Iron Lung, a device that, more than any other, represented the terror in my soul when confronted with the frightening prospect of coming down with the disease.
The most famous victim of the disease, President Franklin D Roosevelt, had the original idea to establish a foundation that would collect pocket change from the citizens of our country to provide the means for research into this terrible disease. He called this organization ‘The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis’ because most of the victims were very young. The name was later changed to ‘The March of Dimes’ by Eddie Cantor, the comedian who was heading up the fundraising effort. (That last couple of sentences comes from my research efforts, In truth, I had completely forgotten that ‘Infantile’ part and I also had no idea that Eddie Cantor was anything other than an entertainer.)
When I saw that container, the memories came flooding back into my head; the Ritz theater and the newsreels of the bloody battles on the Korean Peninsula pieced together with images of a little girl dragging a twisted, useless limb, making her way across the screen on crutches or that of a little boy, the only visible part of him being his head protruding from a giant machine that was hissing away like a scared snake, providing him with life giving air.
I came home from the History center and began to read what we now know about Polio. The more I read on this malady, the more I was amazed at just how ignorant we were about the causes of it. After all, this occurred in the middle of the 20th century, less than 20 years before we put a man on the moon, and my mother was combatting the threat of this plague with prayers and a bottle of Mercurochrome. She felt that any scratch or cut (and being shoeless most of the summer, I had plenty of those to go around) could be the avenue that the virus would use to wreak havoc on my body. She, like many of her peers, also had a suspicion that the disease was contagious but other than that, I don’t remember that we had any idea what the causes were except that it seemed to have something to do with the hot weather of summertime. That explained the closing of public swimming pools at any hint of an outbreak. But, it wasn’t just swimming pools or scratches, everything was suspect.
Susie’s mom and dad forbade her and her sisters from playing in the runoff of rainwater that filled the gutters lining their street. A friend of mine, a lady named Waynette, recalls her father making all of his children take afternoon naps during the summer to combat the disease. In the city, where the outbreaks were more prevalent, doses of Cod Liver Oil protected my friend, Stan.
I had my own idea about avoiding the problem, as well. Early one summer, a young acquaintance had taken a bad fall at the skating rink and later was stricken with Polio. I felt sure that his fall was somehow the cause so I steered clear of the rink on particularly warm and humid evenings which was, of course, most of them.
Whoops. I’m out of space but I’m not finished. God willing, next week.
POLIO SCARE II
Infantile Paralysis or Polio was a terrible disease when I was growing up and the memories of my mother agonizing over the threat of that terrible disease to her children makes me think back to raising my own children and the helplessness my wife, Susie and I felt as our kids worked their way through the childhood diseases of the 70’s and early 1980’s. I cannot imagine, as a father, how it must have been to see Polio ravage your child’s body and not be able to do anything about it. Having no information on the disease, parents had to do whatever they could, including keeping their kids out of the afternoon sun or not allowing them to visit the local skating rink on humid evenings.
Thank God, Susie and I didn’t have to worry about our children thanks to a massive effort in the 1930’s and 40’s to find a solution. In the mid 20th century, while folks around the world frantically continued their efforts to avoid the disease, there was a gargantuan research effort underway in the scientific community fueled in large part by the March of Dimes. The whole nation responded to the crisis by contributing to this foundation that had been set up by President Roosevelt to find a solution. Even today, any mention of the March of Dimes resurrects the image of a a fundraising drive; hundreds and maybe thousands of dimes, more money than I’d ever seen, stretching end to end along the sidewalks of downtown Loogootee, Indiana; coins that would go to ending the illness that was ravaging the nation.
Then, in 1955, all that effort and research came to fruition with the introduction of the Jonas Salk vaccine and a couple of years later, the Albert Sabin oral version. One tidbit garnered from my unscientific efforts at researching this disease; both of these men were direct beneficiaries of grants from the March of Dimes Foundation. I guess those mountains of dimes really did help to produce a serum.
I don’t actually remember getting the vaccine, probably because I was 15 and my center of focus at the time was girls, and would have been even when in line to get a vaccination. I suspect, given the opportunity and had the right girl been in line with me, I might have gotten the shot multiple times.
Receiving the vaccine was not a simple decision. There were plausible reports that some children were contracting Polio from the vaccine. Ann, a friend and retired teacher from my hometown, recalls getting the immunization in school and watching other kids have to stand aside because their parents would not sign the permission slip; the possibility of their children contracting the disease overrode any other considerations.
The vaccine came too late for Billy Simpson, a good friend of mine and a victim of the Polio virus. Seven years (That’s right, 7 years) of treatment while confined to a St. Louis, Missouri Shriners hospital allowed him to have a near normal adult life until the disease in the form of the Post-Polio syndrome confined him to a wheelchair in the late 1990’s. Billy’s revelation about this syndrome surprised me. It had never occurred to me that the while the vaccine stopped the epidemic, Billy was quick to point out that it was not a cure and he is still suffering the effects of the disease, losing a little more of what tiny bit of mobility he has as each year passes.
There was one other effect worth noting about my spending time visiting with the polio outbreak. It brought back the more recent memory of another epidemic, one that prompted a historical, gut-wrenching episode in the 1980’s when a young teenager named Ryan White contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. No doubt, most of us remember the rancorous, neighbor against neighbor debates about whether Ryan should be allowed to attend classes at his school around other children. Parents in Central Indiana were choosing sides and in reality, it was just another case of us being ignorant about how the disease could be spread. I could see both sides of the argument then and if my children had attended that school district, even today, I still do not know what I would have done.
After going through the exercise of writing this column, I am surprised at how little I knew about polio, a subject that was endemic to most of my younger days. Now, 60 years later, I know that the cause of polio was not the heat of a hot, humid summer day or even a scraped knee from a fall at the skating rink. Instead, the major cause was related to ingesting food, water and other matters that had been contaminated by this highly contagious virus hiding in bits of fecal matter. Something else that astounded me; persons infected with the germ may not have suffered any symptoms at all unless the virus made its way into the blood stream and even when it did, the differences in severity were all over the map.
I guess to sum it up, in the end it appears to me that the chance of contracting this crippling disease was nothing more than a random roll of the dice and all the worrying in the world would not have influenced that toss one way or the other.