I Am a Polio Survivor
I Am a Polio Survivor
When I was about seven months old, in late 1954 and early 1955, I was a very sick little girl. At the time, we lived in Norfolk, Virginia, because my Dad was in the Navy. It was not until about four years later, when we were back in Iowa, that some of my deformities began to become noticeable. It was at that point that I was diagnosed with poliomyelitis (polio for short).
I still don’t know why I was not diagnosed much earlier, when I was sick as a baby. My parents had taken me to all of the Navy doctors, and none of them knew what was wrong with me. My parents said I was so sad and cried a lot for no apparent reason (I was too young to tell anyone I was hurting), and I also had projectile vomiting. I would be in my crib and vomit, but none of it would land in my crib—it ended up across the room. The doctors apparently had a hard time believing my parents when they described what was happening at home.
Causes of Polio
Polio is caused by a very contagious virus called poliovirus, which primarily affects younger children. This is why it used to be called infantile paralysis, but it can also infect older children and adults.
The virus was most prevalent in the summer months, and this caused many swimming pools and other public places to be shut down. Polio is so contagious that anyone living with a recently infected person will most likely become infected, too. It is transmitted through saliva and feces, and it is passed on when people do not wash their hands after eating or using the bathroom.
Once infected with the virus, it can remain in the mouth and throat for about three weeks. It then travels to the intestine, where it remains for up to eight weeks. In subclinical infection and non-paralytic polio, the virus usually doesn't get past the intestinal tract. But in paralytic polio, the virus leaves the intestinal tract and enters the bloodstream, attacking the nerves. The virus may affect the nerves in the muscles of the limbs, as well as the muscles necessary for breathing, which causes respiratory difficulty and paralysis of the arms and legs. Some victims ended up in an iron lung to help them breathe.
Types of Polio and Symptoms
There is a subclinical type of polio as well as a clinical type. The clinical type is further subdivided into paralytic and nonparalytic forms.
- Symptoms include: general discomfort or uneasiness, headache, red throat, sore throat, slight fever, vomiting.
Clinical Poliomyelitis (Nonparalytic and Paralytic)
- Affects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
- Subdivided into nonparalytic and paralytic forms.
- May occur after recovery from a subclinical infection.
- Symptoms include: back pain, diarrhea, fatigue, headache, irritability, leg pain in calf muscles, moderate fever, muscle tenderness, neck pain and stiffness, pain in front part of neck, pain or stiffness of the back, arms, legs, abdomen, skin rash or lesion with pain, vomiting.
- Symptoms usually last 1-2 weeks.
- Symptoms include: abnormal sensations (but not loss of sensation) in an area, bloated feeling in abdomen, breathing difficulty, constipation, difficulty beginning to urinate, drooling, fever 5-7 days before other symptoms, headache, irritability or poor temper control, muscle contractions or muscle spasms in the calf, neck, or back, muscle pain, muscle weakness, asymmetrical (only on one side or worse on one side), sensitivity to touch (mild touch may be painful), stiff neck and back, swallowing difficulty, paralysis.
Foot and leg deformities are associated with paralytic polio. These include scoliosis, improper posture, uneven leg length, stunted growth of the pelvis, flat feet, flaccid feet, high arch (cavus foot), over pronation (the foot's tendency to roll in towards the body when we walk), mismatched feet, calluses, bunions, corns, hammertoe, claw toe, and pain in the neck, back, hip, knee, or foot due to uneven growth.
I have deformities, so I’m guessing I had the paralytic type of polio. If I had any paralysis, though, it must have gone unnoticed since I wasn’t walking yet. But I did start walking at nine months—so the polio didn’t keep me down long.
I also have scoliosis, but it wasn't bad enough to require surgery to fix it. I did, however, have a great deal of back pain when I was a kid.
I have uneven leg lengths; my right leg is shorter than the left one. When I was about 12 the doctors put some metal staples in my left knee to stunt the growth of that leg so the right leg, which was an inch shorter, could catch up. After a year, my legs were the same length, and the doctors removed the staples.
I was so happy that I didn’t have to build my shoe up on the right side anymore. The only shoes available to me to be built up back then were black and white saddle shoes. They were not in style, either. Every time I needed new shoes I would always ask if there was anything else that could be built up—and it was always a no. I cried every time I had to go. Until one glorious day when the answer was yes… a nice soft brown pair of Hush Puppies! I cried again, only this time it was tears of joy.
In my late twenties I had some right hip pain, so I went to the doctor and discovered I had grown 5/8ths of an inch, but only my left leg had grown. Suddenly, I was back to needing buildups on the right shoe. Recently, I have been able to cut that down to 3/8”, and I use a heel lift inside my shoe, which means no more buildups (again!). It makes it much easier to find shoes.
I still have to wear a shoe that ties in a wide width, which is a little hard to find, especially in a size 6. My right foot is 2 inches shorter than the left, and all of the toes sit up on top of the foot. So I have learned to balance without my toes touching the ground.
My whole right side, from the waist down to the foot, is smaller than the other side—but it's not too noticeable, and it can be disguised somewhat with loose-fitting clothing. When I was five years old, I had surgery to take a tendon from the left side of my right leg and put it down the front of the leg where there was none. So, my foot and ankle roll to the right when I walk, which puts a lot of stress on my knee. It probably contributed to the ACL blowout I had when I was in college. Consequently, I have a lot of osteoarthritis in that knee. All of the damage occurred on the right side of my body.
March of Dimes
In 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was himself an adult victim of polio, established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The goal of this foundation was to provide care to polio victims and support research.
The popular entertainer Eddie Cantor jokingly suggested that the public send dimes to the president to support his new foundation. To everyone's surprise, the dimes poured into the White House, and in 1938, the newly named March of Dimes awarded its first research grant to Yale University.
By 1955, the year the Salk vaccine was declared safe and effective, the March of Dimes had invested $25.5 million in research. Although Roosevelt did not live to see the vaccine, he and the March of Dimes were so closely associated that the U.S. Congress honored his memory by putting his silhouette on the dime. The government released the first Roosevelt dimes on January 30, 1946, which was FDR's birthday as well as the start of the annual March of Dimes campaign. The March of Dimes is the organization that helped my parents pay for all of the corrective surgeries I had as a child.
At the height of the polio epidemic in 1952, the United States reported 60,000 cases with more than 3,000 deaths. By the early 1960s, however, thanks to the vaccine, the numbers had fallen significantly: the average number of cases fell to 570 cases for the years 1961-1965.
Polio is now a rare disease in the United States. Many doctors today have never even seen a case of polio—thanks to the vaccines of Salk and Sabin.
The Salk vaccine contains dead poliovirus. It is injected just under the skin. The dead virus causes the immune system to start making antibodies against the poliovirus. If a person is infected with the poliovirus later in life, the immune system can protect the body against the disease. His vaccine was first distributed in 1955, but not widely until 1956—too late for me.
The Sabin vaccine is an oral vaccine containing poliovirus that is very weak but not dead. It produces the same effect on the immune system as the dead virus. Sabin’s vaccine did not come into general use until 1962.
Both vaccines are very effective in preventing polio. In fact, some public health experts believe the disease may be completely wiped out in the next decade, although currently it is still prevalent in Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria, and Pakistan.
I remember receiving the polio shot. Even though I'd already been diagnosed with the disease, I still had to have the shot because there are three strains of the virus. It was injected into the buttocks. But I never minded it because I knew what polio could do to you. Later, after Sabin’s vaccine was introduced, we were given a sugar cube soaked in the vaccine.
As if getting polio was not enough, many polio survivors develop fatigue as well as muscle and joint pain as much as 10-40 years later. Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a condition that progresses slowly and seems to hit harder in people who had more severe cases of the original disease. Since it progresses so slowly, it is often hard to diagnose. It is not polio all over again, nor is it contagious. Not much is known about PPS. Doctors don’t know what causes it, how to prevent it, or even how to treat it. It is a very mysterious condition. I have some of these symptoms, but I have never been formally diagnosed with PPS.
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.
FDR’s Role in Polio Research
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, U.S. president from 1932 to 1945, was instrumental in finding funding for the vaccine research. He was a polio survivor himself; he contracted the disease in 1921 at the age of 39, older than most polio victims. (Today, some medical professionals doubt his diagnosis was correct. My opinion is that it doesn’t matter if it was polio or not. He believed it was, and he made it his cause.)
He wore heavy steel braces on his legs, and walking was difficult for him. Most of his time was spent in a wheelchair. He concealed his disability so well that millions of Americans never knew he was a paraplegic who used a wheelchair. He also had a deal with the media to never publish photographs of him in his wheelchair. I doubt any president today could talk the media into that kind of agreement. He founded the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, a hydrotherapy center for polio victims, which later became the Roosevelt Institute for Rehabilitation.
Born Just a Little Too Early
We have succeeded in almost wiping out a disease that discriminated against children. Even though I was unlucky enough to have contracted polio, I still consider myself lucky. I could have died or been stuck in an iron lung to help me breathe. Many people have worse deformities than I do, and I believe it actually helped build my character. If I was told I couldn’t do something, it just made me more determined to prove them wrong… and I usually did. It also made me more compassionate and understanding of people with disabilities.