Why I am sharing my story as a polio survivor

Kerry Jacobson

Kerry Jacobson

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.

Kerry Jacobson at the Iowa State Fair in 1953.

Kerry Jacobson at the Iowa State Fair in 1953.

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!

23 thoughts on “Why I am sharing my story as a polio survivor

  1. My father contracted polio in 1955 in Mass. He used a rocking bed and portable respirators until he had a stroke around 1964 and then he was in an iron lung until he died in 1976.


  2. Kerry, thank you for sharing this. I had spinal polio in 1951 at age 3 and have lived my life with partial paralysis. I wrote a memoir about living the handicapped life which has just come out: Not a Poster Child: Living Well with a Disability – A Memoir. You might enjoy reading it; I’ve tried to share the impact it had on my personality and life choices in addition to the physical limitations I faced. We’re still here! I hope you are a member of Post-Polio Health International, a great organization based in St. Louis which serves thousands of polio survivors in the US and overseas, with information, advice, resources such as support groups, and places to share our experiences. Very best regards, Francine Falk-Allen


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  5. I had bulbar polio in 1949 just months before my fifth birthday. I am one of the fortunate ones who survived with no paralysis and went on to lead an ordinary life with a career in teaching. When I was fifty-six years old, I suffered a knee injury walking on uneven ground which resulted in two surgeries for a torn meniscus within a year’s time. Before this injury, I could easily walk 3 miles for exercise 4-5 times a week. After the surgeries, I never was able to build my walking stamina to more than two city blocks. I was told to just keep walking, but it never improved. To get some answers to why I couldn’t build up my distance walking again, I saw a specialist who knew more about PPS than most doctors, and after many tests, he told me my problem was PPS and arthritis. He explained that was also why I began to experience choking and breathing problems when I was in my early forties. If lecturing, my voice sometimes grew week and I would begin to cough, needing to stop, drink water, and rest. When eating, I sometimes suddenly felt like I was choking and not able to get my breath back. It was very frightening to those eating with me. In the next few years, my ability to remain on my feet teaching was declining. At first I wore out midway through my afternoon classes. During the seven years I remained teaching, it gradually came to tiring out after the first hour of classes. By tiring out, I mean feeling weakness in my legs and not wanting to stand longer. I retired at age 62, and since have kept active in volunteer work. I am now 73 years old and have modified my volunteer work as much as I can. I don’t look forward to the time I will need to curtail it altogether. But I am very thankful for the life I’ve had when so many others were denied the chance due to polio.


  6. Hi I am a polio survivor from Tehran Iran born in 1985, my left leg was infected but thanks to god I can walk with braces and had surgery on my leg when I 18, I got infected by the vaccine, they told me is was faulty at that time we were in middle of a war, Iraq had invaded our country and our health situation was not good still I went to university and have a account job and find a beautiful wife that dose not care of my situation, I hope all polio survivor have a good life and god bless you all.


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  9. In the 40’s my family were moved to Kansas City, MO. I was perhaps 7 or 8.
    I wrote letters to a young friend that I used to play with in Arlington, VA. I never heard back, so my mother eventually called the parents and found out that my young friend had died of bulbar polio. I was crushed. We were all so aware of polio and how our lives changed because of this disease.


  10. God Bless You for posting this. I was born in 1949 and was spared from polio–some of my friends were not.

    Your message is so valuable as younger generations have no clue. With the constant controversies over vaccines, many parents are choosing not to protect their children from all of the childhood diseases. And, Polio was the worst.

    I remember my family going together to the Local Elementary School to get our sugar cube.

    Thank you for posting this, it is invaluable. I am so sorry for the contiuous trouble you suffer from this awful disease.

    God Bless You.


  11. Pingback: Voices of polio survivors | Rotary Voices

  12. i had polio at the age of 7 in 1950. Both my parents had polio. Father walked with crutches mom with artificial leg. I was diagnosed with post polio syndrome 12 years ago. Have had both hips replaced and am a gold medal Ballroom dancer. But it takes me longer and longer to recover from workouts. Also in Rotary and collect for polio plus. Write back. Would love to hear from you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! Few people can do what you do with real hips and no PPS. The “perfect storm” of conditions that I describe in my 2nd post are keeping me from doing too much dancing these days, so you can dance in behalf those of us who can’t.


  13. Another survivor to celebrate with. As Sunny Rollers says in her Blog “We all need to click our champagne glass to celebrate that we have made it through decades of living with polio”. I do celebrate. Not only for the reason that I have lived for 66 1/2 years with the effects of polio but today is my 67 Birthday and I am celebrating that fact today and the entire week long. We must be so thankful for all that Rotary continues to do on our behalf. I get invited to many Rotary Clubs in the area and I am so proud that I have the courage to even get in front of people. As a child it was the most horrible experience I could put myself through. I was different than all the other kids in school with those braces on my legs. Now as an adult, my grandchildren tell me, “I don’t like it when kids at school look at you after you walk past”. I responded to that comment with, “It does not bother me because I can not see them from behind.” I speak to many schools in the 6th grade class and have sessions on self esteem and bullying. I love to show my brace collection and share my childhood stories. Hats off to all Polio Survivors. It is getting harder every year to keep going and try to be as normal as possible. I take my days a lot slower and try to enjoy more time just living in the moment.. I enjoy sharing my Memoir that was published in 2012 “All The Steps I Have Taken” and speak to many church organization and anyone who invites me. Sunny roller just published a Blog regarding me and in October, 2014 Rotary Voices published a story. God Bless you All. Forrest Gump says “If God would have wanted us all to be the same, he would have had everyone wear braces on their legs.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Your story is awe-inspiring! I am an 8th grader writing the story of a close family friend who was 8 when he was diagnosed with Polio. Do you mind if I use some of your amazing story as a cross-referance? It would be much appreciated. Thank you!


  14. Kerry……I am PolioPlus Chair for District 5170. I write a blog on WordPress about polio. Would you mind if I used this entry of yours on my blog? I will of course give you full credit for the writing…..Charlie

    Liked by 1 person

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