By Kerry Jacobson
I feel more urgently than ever the need to share how polio impacted my life. In 1952, I contracted bulbar-polio, the rarest and most dangerous of the strains of the polio virus. I had just turned 7. I caught the virus from a neighborhood friend of my older sister who had been playing at our house and then was admitted to the hospital with polio.
A week later, I was in our family doctor’s office to hear the diagnosis: bulbar polio — very critical. My mother and I were sent on to Mercy Hospital. I remember being quickly taken from my mother, put in a wheelchair, whisked away to a nearby room with other children, and then wheeled past a group of onlookers, including my mother, who were kept separate from us behind a rope to prevent contact. I can remember her waving and crying. Up to that point, I had been smiling and enjoying the wheelchair ride, clueless about what was happening.
I was taken to a room that housed children with contagious cases of polio. There were probably 30 of us randomly placed either in hospital beds or in iron lungs.
One morning, the iron lung that had been next to my bed was gone. I must have asked where the child went, because I remember the nurse explaining that he had gone “downstairs.” I knew that when we were no longer contagious, we went “upstairs,” but I hadn’t been aware of a downstairs. By afternoon, there was a new boy in the iron lung. Only later – and I mean years later – did I understand that the boy had died. I don’t remember how many other occupants of the iron lung went “downstairs.”
After three weeks, I was lucky enough to go “upstairs,” and was spared a one to three month stay for rehab because they were short of space. My parents were willing and able to set up a homemade gym for my rehab. I was restored to full activity within seven months, and have always been grateful to my parents for their dedication to my rehab.
Back then, the world was not friendly to polio victims, and we had strong motivation to keep our scars hidden. While my right leg and hip were impacted, and strength and endurance are an issue, my major and enduring areas of difficulty are swallowing, breathing, talking, and articulating. I am experiencing increasing challenges in these areas.
Even for those of us lucky enough to avoid visible paralysis, keeping up requires a huge effort. Many polio survivors become driven to achieve, and the harder we try, the more we are open to the affects of Post Polio Syndrome.
I am extremely concerned about the re-emergence of polio. Ironically, in our efforts to be normal, many polio survivors have dropped out of the public’s sight and don’t serve as reminders of polio’s ongoing threat. This is why I am choosing now, after so many years, to share my story.
Thankfully, Rotary has been leading the way in the effort to eradicate this crippling disease for good. Find out how to be an advocate and other ways to help fight polio. Thanks Rotary!