By Eliana Zagui, author of Pulmão de Aço (Iron Lung)
Before it was eradicated through the effort of massive immunization campaigns in 1989, poliomyelitis was prevalent in Brazil. The lack of vaccine and poor sanitation in small towns resulted in thousands of victims a year. Avoiding polio was often a matter of luck.
In January 1976, at the age of two, my luck ran out. I woke up with a fever and weak lower limbs. Although my parents were used to my recurrent episodes of sore throat, they brought me to the nearest city of Jaboticabal for medical treatment. The next day, lacking a diagnosis, I was sent to Ribeirão Preto, a larger city with better medical facilities. By the time the doctors came to the conclusion that I had contracted polio, the virus had already started its devastating muscular paralysis process.
We lived in Guariba near São Paulo, more than 180 miles from the major polio treatment center in Brazil. Getting to the ‘Hospital das Clínicas’ in São Paulo was a struggle. But after several hours, we received a ride from a charitable individual. By that time, I was already paralyzed from my neck down, and my breathing was restricted by the paralysis of my diaphragm.
I was placed in an iron lung a number of times in an attempt to reverse the respiratory failure, but eventually the doctors concluded the battle was lost. I was tracheotomized and connected to an artificial respirator. More than 36 years later, I still depend on the artificial respirator to breathe.
I have lived the rest of my life at the same ‘Hospital das Clínicas.’ Out of hundreds of children admitted to the hospital in the ‘60s and ‘70s, seven of us formed a family, and developed bonds with the doctors and nurses who looked after us. Five of our family died in the ‘80s, and now only Paulo Henrique Machado and I remain. We still share a room in the Intensive Care Unit.
It was in that room that Paulo and I learned how to read and write. While Paulo has limited hand movements, I can only move my neck and head. Everything I can do with some autonomy has to be done with my mouth. That includes my paintings, which are sold around the world through an association.
The story of how Paulo and I survived polio and how, for decades, we have lived almost completely paralyzed at Hospital das Clínicas is told in the book Pulmão de Aço (Iron Lung), published this year in Brazil by Belaletra Editora