What it Was Really Like to Have Polio
In the summer of 1953, when I was 12 and a half years old, I got pretty sick and had a very high fever. Our family doctor came to the house and the next thing I knew I was in an operating room. The last face I saw before my spinal tap was a young, red-haired doctor. I remember the most excruciating pain I have ever felt. It was as if I had been electrocuted. I thought my fingers and my toes had been burnt to a crisp.
I woke up alone in a very large room. There was a plastic curtain around the bed and when I opened the plastic curtain, I saw windows to the outside, but the blinds were down. On the other side of the room, there was a tiny window to what I guessed was a hallway, but from my vantage point, I had no chance of seeing who or what was on the other side.
I knew I had been in the room for some time, but I didn’t know how long. I got the feeling it was days, not hours. At some point, an orderly came in. She was the first person I had seen since that last moment before the spinal tap. I said to her, “No one has talked to me. Do you know what’s wrong with me?” “Don’t you know?” she responded. “You got polio.”
I immediately hated her – for her insensitivity, for sure, but mostly, of course, because of the message she delivered. I am not a hater, but I think I hate her to this day.
The Hospital Stay
As soon as she left, I tried to walk from my bed to the bathroom but my feet would not support me. I fell hard to the cold floor. I was alone. I was terrified. Another day, I’m not sure how many days after that, I tried again and I could walk, not steadily, but I could walk. Maybe the reason I couldn’t walk before was that I hadn’t used my legs in so long, maybe it was the aftereffect of the spinal tap, or maybe it was paralysis.
I was alone for a long time, somewhere between three to five weeks. The only person I remember seeing was that orderly and just that one time.
Then one day, someone told me I could leave “isolation.” My parents were waiting for me as I left the room. They were crying and they hugged me. I don’t remember feeling any emotion.
How Polio Affected Me
Years later, my sister told me they had been on the other side of that tiny window every day, my mother all day every day. They had been consumed by fears that their son had been ravaged permanently by the most terrifying scourge on the earth in those pre-vaccine days. There was no communication with my parents about my condition.
The nurses wouldn’t allow the gifts my parents and other people had sent to be brought into my isolation room. They told my parents they could be made contagious. My sister says the only time she remembers my mother ever raising her voice was over that. She said then burn them after he’s no longer in isolation but they still wouldn’t allow them to be brought to me.
So for all that time, I saw no one. I received no communication from anyone; I had no knowledge that anyone was thinking about me.
Finally, I was taken out of isolation. My parents and my sister, who for weeks had only been able to get glimpses through a tiny window, could finally see and touch me. Now, as a parent, I realize how important it was that they could finally hold me.
I eventually learned that the place was called the Southwestern Poliomyelitis Respiratory Center. The room I was taken to was a polio ward full of people who were no longer contagious but who were too sick or too disabled to be able to leave. There were lots of people in beds and at least five were in iron lungs to help them breathe.
After a few days, I asked one of the doctors, “When can I get out of this place?” He responded, “when you can touch your toes.” I was never one to push myself physically to test the limits of my endurance, my strength, or any of those other qualities that good athletes have—not before and not after—but I will tell you I touched my toes in less than a week.
To say I was lucky is an understatement. I don’t have the ability to translate “lucky” into all it meant for the rest of my life. My sister tells me that although initially I was completely paralyzed, it turned out I had a mild case because the paralysis went away.
In the summer of 1953, polio was feared more by children and their parents than any other thing in the world. President Roosevelt had been a victim. Whole summer camps were quarantined. It was an epidemic.
Polio: A History
The year before, there were nearly 58,000 cases in the U.S., leaving many children dead or paralyzed with limbs that no longer served a useful purpose. At the movies, we would contribute our change to the ushers who were collecting for the March of Dimes. Public swimming pools were closed. We didn’t do lots of other things because we feared we might contract polio. And we might have. I really don’t know how I caught it.
Probably the best description of what those days were like is found in Philip Roth’s final novel, Nemesis. From Goodreads: “Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground—and on the everyday realities he faces—Roth leads us through every inch of emotion such a pestilence can breed: the fear, the panic, the anger, the bewilderment, the suffering, and the pain.”
In 1955, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that, for all practical purposes, suddenly and wonderfully ended polio as a threat. Poof. The money we had all given to the March of Dimes to end infantile paralysis had miraculously worked. A few years later a vaccine that had longer-lasting effects, the Sabin vaccine, replaced the Salk immunization.
The Southwestern Poliomyelitis Respiratory Center is now the site of the Federal Reserve Bank of Houston.
Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad your paralysis went away after a while. What a scary experience that must have been.
So glad you survived.
You were your mother’s treasure.
Mother’s don’t say it when sons are grown men
But people can tell that.
GOD bless you al 🙏🏻
This story touched my heart. To treat a 12 year old boy
is inconceivable. Some parts had to effect the redo of your life. Being in an enclosed space for that long I can only okay what your thoughts woo have been. And the
Nasty nurse was unbelievably cruel.
I’m hoping I get to Tony’s on Thursday night. I have a plumbing issue that I hope is resolved so I can get dressed.
I’m so glad your being so successful with your book.
Marc, this story of your case of polio should be required reading by all the anti-vaccination people. Neither they nor their doctors can remember an epidemic. I remember those times vividly. Find an anti-vaccination web site and post it. I vividly remember gratefully taking the sugar cubes with the vaccine in 1960 in the student center at UT.
Thank you for sharing your story. I’m glad you recovered so well, and I hope people who are hesitant to vaccinate their children listen to you.
Marc, after knowing you for all these years through my cousin and one of your best friends, Stuart, I never knew or imaged that you had Polio. I’m sorry for the pain and isolation that you endured.
I’m very glad that I got a glimpse of not only your struggle and recovery but also your writing. I am in the process of reading your book and I must admit, I don’t want to put it down. I will miss your signing today as I am reading. I will catch you at the next signing.
Wow, what a great post. I think we often don’t think of the many people afflicted by this awful disease these days. Thanks for sharing.
I found the story of your fight and experience with polio to be so scary because that was a horrible debilitating disease, but you remained strong and the fact you were able to tell your story was very heartwarming. I struggle with Rheumatoid Arthritis every day but try to stay positive and believe there’s light at the end of every tunnel. Thanks for sharing your journey!
My mom had polio but she was one of the blessed ones. She had to wear braces for awhile but it didn’t affect her long term.
My Dad too lived thru polio and survived He had little lasting effects from it as well Thanks for sharing
I had a few surgeries as a child and my parents were always there except in the OR. I can’t imagine the pain you and your parents most have gone through to be separated for so long and by such a scary disease.
During the mid 1950’s I volunteered at a hospital to feed and talk to polio patients in iron lungs. It was a eye-opening experience. I often wonder about the outcome of these wonderful victims of that dreadful disease. I’m happy that you had a light case and overcame this experience.
My cousin Sue was the only 1 to have polio around in the time we grew up of vaccinations. She had the boot and it was terrible for the family I remember back in the early ’60s. I have never come across any one else. It affected her life physically still to this day. Emotionally she became a strong Christian speaker.
Such an interesting read. Thank you for sharing. My mother had polio as a child. She recovered but wore leg braces through most of her childhood. She really never talked about the polio but spoke frequently about her leg braces and how much she hated them. It made me so sad for her. She eventually left school because of the teasing she endured. She was left with one leg shorter than the other and had leg and hip problems the rest of her life. She wore a lifted shoe but it didn’t really relieve much of her discomfort. I’m so glad this disease has been eradicated.
This book would not have been a top choice of mine to read until I read the synopsis above, That is the time period I grew up in and I never knew it was so dismal for those with polio. Gives me a new insight
That is so scary. I can’t imagine having polio. I had meningitis and had a spinal tap. Horrid. I am pro vaccinations and this is why. All my kids were and my grandkids have been too. What a terrifying thing for a child.
I remember how afraid all of us children were in the 1950s of getting polio. We’d tell each other the latest tales of how people caught the disease and no one really knew. We’d see photos of children in iron lungs. But I never knew anyone who had it. You have given a face and voice to those young victims we were all afraid of becoming. Although we knew the disease was painful and could paralyze or kill us, I don’t think any of us every thought about how it could isolate us from our families and all who loved us, leaving us totally alone with people we didn’t know. That must have been one of the most painful parts of having the disease. And that’s what happens to hospitalized Covid19 patients today. In fact, because of Covid19, people in the hospital for anything where I live aren’t allowed to have visitors. When my nephew’s wife went to the hospital to deliver their child, he was allowed to come in with her, but not allowed to come back if he had to leave. When people are sick and afraid is when they most long for the company of someone who loves them.