Polio Awareness Month
I just got my newsletter from The March of Dimes, "Polio' Canada". It reminded me that October is Polio Awareness Month.
I had polio when I was 5. It has been a memory I have carried with me all my life. Memories around getting polio are some of my earliest memories. I can remember the day my mother decided there was something wrong with me and called the doctor. I had been irritable (not my usual pleasant self :) ) I was generally aching all over and had a temperature. I am not sure why she called the doctor but those where the days that parents worried about polio every summer. It was an incurable disease that was life altering for many, either through death or crippled limbs. It was the AIDS of it's day occasionally coming as an epidemic.
The doctor came, our country/small town doctor, Dr. Fletcher, who years later I came to hold in low regard. This time he got it right. With a brief examination of me and some simple tests (I remember being asked to touch my chest with my chin) while I lay on my parents bed. "You need to take this boy to the hospital right away", he informed my mother.
We had no car and lived outside of Toronto. It was a neighbour I believe drove me and my mother to the Sick Children's Hospital in Toronto. It was a bewildering time for a 5 year old. I can still recall the feeling of dread and abandonment when my mother told me to go along with the nurse. She would come and see me before she left. Well she did not come. They would not let her. It was a week before I would see her. A week is an eternity for a five year old in a strange environment. All I remember of the hospital routine was being served porridge with prune juice on it. How I hated it.
As a parent myself, I can only imagine the dismay of my parents. My mother told me of my father's reaction to me getting polio. My father was not a very emotional man having had a very difficult childhood so my mother's recall a few years later of his reaction has always stayed with me. He apparently cried and declared, "My son will never be able to play sports." This is about as emotionally communicative he was I can know about. As life worked out, I spend my whole live waiting for my father to say he loved me and to tell me he was proud of some accomplishment I had. It never came. I always had to depend on my mother to tell me what my father thought and felt. Perhaps, if I had done more in sports (I was the top athlete in my junior high school.) he might have expressed his pride and pleasure with me. This is how the fragments of memory of childhood gets all mixed up together.
I was never crippled with polio; although, in spite of being left-handed I always felt my right side was stronger than my left. Always I felt I was so very lucky to not have been crippled. There where crippled kids you would see in those days struggling with braces on their legs to remind me what I avoided.. The daughter of the public health doctor who came and put a quarantine sign on our house later that summer got polio and was crippled. There was a time I felt guilty of this as if she contracted it from me. Another year, one of the Bond boys, (only a year apart in age), got polio and died. How horrible it was. I think that was the first death I ever spent time thinking about.
I was sent to the Thistletown Hospital outside of Toronto for a couple of months convalescence Without a car my parents could only visit once a week. It would have been a day long journey: the bus and streetcar into the bus station in Toronto, then a bus ride to Thistletown. My bother and sister, when they were allowed to come, could only see me through the window. I lived from one weekly visit to the next when I would get to see my family. On one occasion, my Uncle Ross sent me a fringed leather vest and Eskimo doll which he brought back from Alaska. I cherished these two items for many years.
As a result of my hospitalization I began school two months late. I was in Madam Bedard's first grade class, (there was no kindergarten back then). It was a little confusing at first. The first day of school I walked, 1 1/2 miles home at noon thinking that was the end of the day. (There were no school buses in those days). I guess I was not very impressed with school or I needed my mother. She sent me back the next day.
Several years later, the polio vaccine was developed. Having had polio I probably did not need the injections, but I always got them along with the other children at school several times in the 50's. Here is a CBC video about polio in Canada and the last year of its great threat 1953
This little girl is the age I was when I got polio. How fortunate I was to never have to wear braces and use crutches. I remember seeing a picture of a boy in was in the Thistletown Hospital, in the newspaper many years after I was home. He was just being released from the hospital. His name was Morgan French. I often wonder how life worked out for him.
It is hard to believe now that so many had to spend time in "iron lungs" to help them breathe.
Do you remember them.?
These days former polio victim are having recurring symptoms. This is post-polio syndrome. I have followed this for many years and even contacted a local group of post-polio syndrome support group. While I have thought I was suffering some effects of having had polio I was always reluctant to join this group. On the phone a very cheerful woman told me of all the wonderful new prosthetic devices to help you get around. I just could not bring myself to me an "able bodied" participant in the group. I never had to wear braces, use crutches or use a wheel chair.
I have since learned that Toronto scientists played a big part in the development of the Salk Vaccine. At the world famous Connaught Laboratory the medium to allow the commercial development of the vaccine was developed so they could produce enough vaccine so all the child population could be vaccinated. Here is an historical essay of the Canadian contribution.
Dr . John Gerald FitzGerald founded the Connaught Laboratories and made it a World Class facility in the rather provincial city of Toronto. Here is his story in the video below.
The Connaught Labratories were first formed to create diphtheria anti-toxin in expensively so that it could be freely distributed rather than use the American vaccine which cost twice the weekly wage of worker's back them. a prohibitive cost. Fitzgerald had also developed the first vaccine against rabies. Connaught was up and running in time to create anti-toxins to use on the troops of WW! and to help fight the 1918 pandemic. When Connaught came to manufacture Insulin developed by MacLeod, Banting , Best and Collip (which my latin teacher, his sister, Miss Collip never failed to remind us), it reputation as a World Class Laboratory was assured. Dr Best went to to develop Heparin, a blood thiner that made open heart surgery possible. Connaught went to develop vaccines and blood products for years. And. it played it important role in producing the Salk vaccine to combat polio. It continues today as part of Sanofi-Pasteur Limited, which is the World's largest vaccine producer in the World. Sadly, it has moved away for being a great Canadian institution, an integral part of the University of Toronto.
Now that polio is eradicated in most countries in the World and they continue to eradicate it in where it still persists, we can look forward to the day when children everywhere will not be strickened to become crippled or even die. For those few who resist vaccines of all kinds for various reasons I just have to wonder if they know the history of vaccine development and the million, possibly billions of lives that have been protected and saved by science of developing vaccines.
The current generation of post polio syndrome sufferers will be gone in a couple of decades and then knowledge of polio and it's much feared results will be relegated to the history books. It is good to remember the defeat of this disease.