Today's post is a guest post written by polio survivor and author Jan Nichols. Jan Nichols lost her twin brother to polio and survived the disease herself in 1953, at the young age of six. More information about her story can be found on shotbyshot.org and on the site addressing her memoir. This post is also in honor of Frankie Flood.
My early childhood was idyllic. My twin brother Frankie and I were blessed to live in a prosperous suburb of Syracuse, NY with loving parents who made certain that they adhered to every recommendation made by the public health community: vaccinate against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and smallpox (the vaccines available to children of my era) and avoid large public gatherings and swimming pools during “polio weather.” My mother made certain that I attended “rubella parties” until I contracted the seemingly innocuous 3-day rash. Every mother knew that contracting rubella during pregnancy could lead to miscarriage and horrific medical consequences for babies infected in utero (the vaccine was not available until the late 1960s). Like nearly all older baby boomers I contracted measles, mumps, and chicken pox – “rites of passage” with disastrous consequences for some, until vaccines were available.
Yes, my life was idyllic until October 30, 1953. That’s when Frankie was admitted to City Hospital with a diagnosis of paralytic polio. Sixty-one hours after admission, he died while en route to the operating room where an emergency tracheostomy was to be performed. Frankie died with my father cradling his only son as best he could while hampered by an iron lung that encased my twin’s body save his head and neck.
On the night Frankie was buried, I was admitted to the same hospital with the same diagnosis, though I was spared the horror of the dreaded iron lung. Later on that week, my mother suffered a miscarriage. Sadly, our story was not unique before the polio vaccine was licensed in 1955.
The doctors could not tell my parents whether I would survive or not, though they added with some degree of caution that the massive doses of gamma globulin I received once Frankie’s diagnosis was confirmed might (just might) spare my life. A few days after admission, my fever broke and I awoke to the sound of a tiny baby coughing incessantly down the hall. I asked the nurse what was wrong with the child; she explained that the baby had whooping cough. The fact that I could not move was secondary to the fear I felt for that baby!
Because of intensive daily physical therapy and the love and support of family, friends, and the medical community, I eventually made a miraculous recovery. I have missed my birth partner every day of my life since that cruel fall, though I am determined to bring meaning to Frankie’s life by advocating for vaccination and polio eradication.
I wonder each day whether that baby from fall 1953 died from whooping cough … I shudder when I read that fewer and fewer children are being vaccinated. Vaccines have rendered these diseases “out of sight,” but not out of my mind’s eye!
Childhood vaccine-preventable diseases are no longer “rites of passage.” They are all diseases that can kill or maim.
I would like to introduce you to Frankie and Janice Flood. This photo was taken in our living room a few weeks before Frankie died. My parents obtained permission from the Onondaga County Health Department to wake Frankie in our home, with his casket centered in the room featured in this picture. Frankie’s twin sister placed his precious ball and bat in the casket. She was certain that Frankie would need his baseball paraphernalia in Heaven – Janice Flood Nichols, Frankie’s twin.
Here are several websites that can offer useful information about vaccines:
www.chop.edu/service/vaccine-education-center, www.vaccineinformation.org, www.immunize.org/express, www.shotbyshot.org, www.shotatlife.org, and www.ecbt.org