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Terror, 1950s Style

The invisible enemy was polio, and its lessons are relevant today

September 12, 2004|Kurt Sipolski | Kurt Sipolski is a Palm Desert freelance writer and the former editor and publisher of San Francisco Gentry magazine. E-mail:

Every day for almost three years we have been reminded that we should be afraid, that we live in the age of terror. But there was another age of terror in my lifetime, one focused on a far more concrete source of fear: polio.

It was a time when parents kissed their children goodnight, not knowing if they would be able to walk in the morning. It was a time when swimming pools and movie theaters were locked tight, viewed as places too dangerous for children to gather during an epidemic. Mothers in suits and gloves and hats and high heels went door to door collecting money to fund research for a cure, knowing that the lives of their children were at stake.

The first major epidemic was in New York City in 1916, when 9,000 people there came down with polio. Outbreaks raged throughout the nation that year, with 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. In the years that followed, the disease cut a wide swath. Among its victims were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Frida Kahlo, Mia Farrow, Joni Mitchell, Francis Ford Coppola and Itzhak Perlman. During the peak epidemic year, 1952, the U.S. had 58,000 polio cases.

We've nearly forgotten all that, but it seems appropriate now, on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Salk vaccine and the eradication of polio in the United States, to remember. To that end, Sen. Arlen Specter sponsored a Senate resolution declaring 2004 "The Year of Polio Awareness."

The disease hit my family just after World War II. My father had recently died, and my mother had moved back to her childhood home in Illinois. I was 2 years old.

"It was Thanksgiving when you got so sick," my mother told me years later. "It was winter. My God, people didn't get polio in the winter. I thought it was the flu. But one morning you couldn't stand up and that's when the doctor told me you had it."

Fear was everywhere. My aunt hung cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol on the windows to keep the virus from her kids.

I don't remember much about the actual illness, but I certainly remember its aftermath. In the evenings, I'd balance on one leg after the heavy, waist-high steel-and-leather brace was removed, waiting for my mother to clear the kitchen table for my nightly exercises. To distract me from the pain of stretching, she taught me the alphabet, then spelling. Later, all through grade school, I was the only one to consistently get 100% on spelling tests.

She and my older brother tacked a map of the world on the wall, and my mother told me about the different countries, about the languages they spoke and the coins they used. Family friends returning from the war would give me rubles and pence and francs to hold and study as I laid on my stomach for the nightly ritual: My mother had me bend up my leg, then made me hold it bent while she tried to force the leg back down, which didn't take much strength.

During the nightly ritual, my mother also taught me optimism, faith and spirituality as I sat on the edge of the table. But even she had to admit that some of the muscles in one leg would never come back. Things that couldn't be changed should be accepted, so her message was simply that: Like everyone else, I had strengths and limitations and needed to work on both.

"Really nice people won't care if you are a little different," she insisted. "Differences are what make a person special." If my nerves and muscles were wired wrong, she was determined that my heart and personality would be fully functional.

Ten years later, I was able to discard the brace, and my stepfather mounted it on the wall and made a gun rack out of it. It was a fine trophy.

My mother's lessons lasted long after I outgrew the need for nightly exercises. The young boy who distracted himself from pain by studying a map of the world grew up to ride a train across Siberia, to surf (or at least attempt to surf) at Australia's Bondi Beach, to hitchhike across Switzerland, to feel the mist and roar of South America's Iguassu Falls and Africa's Victoria Falls, and run a coffee shop in Paris.

Of course, every mother wants a healthy child. My mother would never have chosen to become one of the hundreds of thousands of polio mothers struggling with guilt and apprehension. But the disease transformed my family in profound ways. At the end of her life, my mother had a stroke. It was then my turn to teach her to walk again. The lessons of the polio days served us well. She learned to ignore pain and frustration, as she had taught me to do when I was young. It was also polio that gave me the patience and strength to care for my older brother during his fatal battle with melanoma.

Yet the bigger lessons of polio were those that our nation learned, and they are lessons that would serve us well to recall now. In recent weeks, the U.S. government declined to oppose a 400% increase in the price of a drug used to treat AIDS. Back then, the nation focused its minds and hearts on finding a cure, and when it was found, the resulting vaccine was given out free to all Americans and to people all over the world.

When Dr. Jonas Salk was asked by Edward R. Murrow in a television interview who owned the patent to the vaccine he had discovered, he said simply, "Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

We could use a Jonas Salk or two today.

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