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.