In 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) reported only 74 cases of poliomyelitis worldwide. The virus that once struck the lives of hundreds of thousands each year has been all but eradicated today. Polio has been around since the beginning of recorded history, but by the 1800s polio epidemics began to appear regularly across Europe. By 1910, these epidemics became frequent in cities with large populations, especially during the summer months when the polio virus thrived in the warm weather. Children were at greatest risk in the early years; later the virus would target older children and adolescents. Some individuals were at greater risk for contracting polio, and especially the paralytic Type I polio. For example, pregnancy heightened a woman's risk of contracting Type I polio. The polio virus entered its victim through the mouth and flourished in the throat, before passing into the intestines and bloodstream. Because viruses can be carried to the spinal cord, they can "kill or transiently injure motor nerve cells that control skeletal muscles, causing paralysis (https://www.questia.com/article/1G1-10942759/a-new-challenge-for-former-polio-patients). The host became ill within days of exposure to the virus, beginning with high fevers, muscle stiffness and pain, followed by one of three outcomes: quick recovery (and a lifelong immunity to the virus), paralysis in the extremities (lower, or upper, or all four), or death. It is easy to see why parents were terrified of allowing their children outdoors during localized outbreaks. As children were kept isolated, the average age of polio victims rose. By 1952, one third of those affected by polio Type I were over age 15.
Take a look at polio's growth in the United States during the first half of the 20th century:
- 1894 Vermont epidemic 132 cases in children and adults (18 deaths from Type I polio)
- 1907 New York City 2700 cases
- 1916 New York City 2,000 deaths from Type I polio
- 1916 United States 27,000 cases nationwide (6000 deaths)
- 1949 United States nationwide epidemic (2720 deaths)
- 1952 United States 57,628 cases nationwide (3145 deaths & 21,269 disabled by Type I)
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For weeks Olive lay paralyzed in a San Francisco hospital, unable to move her arms. She was given prolonged doses of opiates for pain, and at one point contracted Bell's palsy in her face when a window was left open all night. Luckily, the Bell's palsy was only temporary, but it sent her into a tailspin of sorrow and self-pity. She lay in the hospital fretting over the child she was carrying, afraid that the virus had attacked and paralyzed the baby, or that the drugs she was being given would cause permanent damage to the child's brain. She agonized over Paul. Who was watching him? Would he remember his mommy? How would she be able to ever care for him again? And the man she married, the sweet innocent country bumpkin who had gone to war at age 21, had come back a changed man. They were almost strangers now. To say nothing of her piano-playing skills that she had developed since age seven. At one point in college, she had taught piano lesson at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Unable to move her shoulders, arms, and fingers, her musicianship was gone, too. She had plenty of reasons to feel sadness and despair. Meanwhile, no one brushed her teeth regularly or thoroughly while she was in the hospital, and she couldn't brush them herself. So, her teeth became decayed. Some time in the year after she left the hospital, her upper teeth were pulled and she wore dentures for the rest of her life.
Olive was 26 years old, with a two-year-old and a newborn that she was unable to hold. Her piano sat silent in the living room, while her toddler ran wild. Luckily, she was blessed with a wonderful husband! Jim would get up in the mornings, change the diapers, help Olive with her toilet duties, fix breakfast and feed the babies, then leave for work. Mom must have been terrified to be left alone with us until lunchtime, when Dad would rush home to repeat his tasks and rush back to work. At 4:30pm when the dayshift ended at the air base, Dad would return home and repeat once more the meals/diapers/housekeeping duties that no one else could. I marvel at his devotion to us all. His love must have driven his determination to make it all better. It would be decades before he would have the luxury of processing the horrors of his wartime experiences.
Mom recovered. I don't know how, but she began to play the piano again. She gave birth to her third (and last) baby in 1955. I was two when John was born. By the time I was four, she was working as a nurse once more. Grit, obstreperousness, and desperation drove her to regain the use of her arms. I don't remember the process, because I was too young, but I remember that every single day of my childhood gave me a close-up view of the residual effects of polio on my mother. Not just on her, but on Dad, Paul, me, and John. Each of us was affected by the disease. What follows is the story of how polio shaped our lives, individually and as a family.