My Hauntings of Polio
Past and Present

I have journeyed down a very long yellow brick road of life. As I long back and compare the past with the present, I don’t get it. When I was a child, the people I knew listened to doctors’ advice when sick. Today, it is different. We face the coronavirus pandemic, the worst global medical issue since the Spanish flu a century ago.

When Americans deal with COVID-19, there are two groups of people that address is disease differently. The first group listens to the doctors and scientists like the medical doctors, pulmonologists, immunologists, infectious disease experts, ad infinitum.

Politicians and some talking heads from Fox News make up the second group. To make matters worse, and none of those politicians are making medical backgrounds.  For example, Governor DeSantis of Florida and Governor Abbott of Texas are the poster children who put their state’s populations in danger of getting COVID-19 and spreading it.

If I had a dental problem, I wouldn’t follow what DeSantis tells me to do. If I had diabetes, I wouldn’t go to Abbot. Interestingly, when a tree fell on Abbot while jogging in 1984, he followed the treatment plan of medical doctors and not what the governor of Texas might have thought. Apparently, Abbot changed his mind. Abbot’s advice doesn’t save lives or stop the spread of COVID-19. Florida and Texas lead all the other states with confirmed cases and deaths.

Let me tell you a personal medical situation when I was around five. I had gotten sick, and my parents were concerned. My mother called Dr. Hadley. He was my family’s doctor, and he delivered me. There I was lying in bed as I watched my mother and father discussing with Dr. Hadley what might be wrong with me. I don’t recall much about their discussion three-quarters of a century ago.

There I laid in my bed, not feeling well while I listened to my parents and Dr. Hadley whispered among themselves in the doorway of my bedroom. Two items were etched into my psyche. One was that I was in trouble. Even a five-year-old child could sense their fears. The other thing that haunted me was hearing the word polio.

I had no idea what polio was. Nonetheless, if Dr. Hadley was concerned, I knew that I faced an extremely problematic medical future due to whatever polio was. I was scared. As it turned out, I had not contracted polio. I had some bad cold or flu, which caused me trouble breathing. A couple of weeks later, I returned to normal.

I went back to Collins Tract, where I was in kindergarten. Six years later, I entered fifth grade. My teacher gave me the responsibility of helping Emily Flowers, a classmate of mine. Emily had polio for several years and wore braces. The teacher had me help Emily get ready to leave fifteen minutes before the bell rang to dismiss the rest of the class at the end of the day. I helped Emily get her books together, which I carried for her. I would help her get up from her desk. I then gave Emily her crutches so that she could walk. Then I would help her down the fire escape where her mother waited for Emily in the family car.

This is Collins Tract Elementary School. If you were to through the front door seventy years ago, walk upstairs, and turn to the right, my fifth-grade classroom was at the back corner of the second floor.

Collins Tract

I thought about how I could have been like Emily. That was a sobering experience for me as an elementary school student. She probably got polio around the same time Dr. Handley said to my parents that I might have polio. That has haunted me all my life. I lucked out.

In the mid-50s, Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to the Salk vaccine, many children lived in iron lungs.

They didn’t get a vaccine because there weren’t any vaccines.

It didn’t take me long to find this graph about cases and deaths due to polio in America. Interestingly, it begins tracking polio in 1943, which was the year of my birth. However, when I helped Emily down the fire escape, there were nearly 60,000 confirmed cases of polio and around 3,000 deaths that year.

And then there was a vaccine….

Polio was a scourge that every American family faced. Everyone was scared. Governors back in the 40s and 50s weren’t using polio as a marketing tool for reelection. All parents couldn’t wait to get the Salk vaccine for their children.

Jonas Salk

Interestingly, I danced with death twice in 2008. Having done the dance, I have a great sensitivity to the issue of life and death. I appreciate life and know that I am not immortal. Therefore, I cherish what time remains for me in this world. I got my first Moderna shot on January 20th this year, which was my birthday. In late February, I got my second shot.

There are two quite simple reasons for getting my shots. It helps protect me from getting the coronavirus and protects others from getting it from me if I hadn’t gotten my shots.