Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Polio through the Eyes of a Child

Judith remembers the day when it all started very, very clearly. “I was 6, almost 7.  It was in late August 1949 in Connecticut. I jumped out of bed to run to the bathroom and fell and then couldn’t get up.” Judith was very, very frightened. By the next day, she was paralyzed from the neck down. The doctor was urgently called, although it was late at night, and at his instruction, Judith was immediately transported to the hospital. Judith thinks that she was taken in her parents’ car, but she is not sure: by that point, she was running a high fever, and was only partly aware of her surroundings. The hospital was an hour’s drive away. Upon arrival, Judith’s parents told her, she was put in an iron lung. Her parents were told she was not going to survive. Judith was not aware; she says: “I think I was unconscious. My first memory is waking up and seeing the iron lung next to the bed... I had been removed from it”.

                         Iron lung picture courtesy of "The Vaccine Meme Machine" -             https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Vaccine-Meme-Machine/302477036534120?fref=ts

There were 200 children in the hospital, some very young, infants or toddlers in diapers. There was a shortage of nurses because many nurses, after serving in World War II, quit their hard, challenging jobs and went home to marry and raise a family. For the first month, Judith was in quarantine. Here is how she describes that experience:

“Twice a day, an orderly comes in with a stack of towels, fills the washer tub with steaming hot water that snakes through a black tube from the faucet, and drops them in. The towels are actually cut-up recycled army blankets. With gloved hands he feeds the dripping wet wool towels into the wringer and then passes them to a nurse, who wraps them around the girl’s arms and legs. The therapy is working; each day she is stronger. She is coming back to life.
This morning, her blanket and top sheet are drenched, but not from the hot packs. A while ago the nurse brought in a breakfast tray with Rice Krispies and a glass of orange juice, then poured milk into the cereal bowl, filling it almost to the top. “There you go, honey,” she crooned. Later, when the girl spooned the cereal into her mouth, the milk slopped over and ran off the tray. When the nurse came to retrieve the tray, she saw the mess. Angry, forgetting herself, she said, “Clumsy girl. You’re going to have to wait until I’m done with my rounds.”
The girl can shut out this world by remembering the earlier days of summer when she played on the beach everyday and learned to swim. She relives the first moment of trusting the water and lifting her feet from the soft sandy bottom, kicking a splashy wake behind her.
.. the nurse returns and wordlessly pulls off the wet sheet and blanket and flings crispy dry ones over the girl, tucking them in quickly. A warm tingly flood of relief flows through the girl. She is respectfully quiet and watches the nurse, who looks a bit like her mother, except she’s older and her mouth is turned down. She has black shiny hair pulled up and tucked under a white cap with “Englewood Hospital” embroidered on it. Her uniform has dark stains down the front and she wears a wedding ring.
“Your mother and father are coming to visit today,” the nurse says, going over to check the window and then looking out at something below. “You’re a lucky little girl,” she says, turning back to face her, “but better mind your Ps and Qs.” The girl thinks these are actually conditions the nurse has placed on the visit and she thinks about how she may have misbehaved. A child in the room next door starts to cry.
She was brought here in the middle of the night about a month ago, and no one has told her what that means and she does not know what questions to ask, nor does she dare because maybe she is not supposed to know why.
An orderly comes to the doorway and drapes what looks like chicken wire across the entrance to waist level, hooking it onto nails driven into the sides. “Getting ready for your visitors,” he says, leaning in a bit. The child next door stops crying. The girl’s eyes close and she falls asleep, dreaming about her little sister.
She is awakened by the sounds of her visitors. “Hello, sweetie,” her mother calls from the doorway, waving. She has on red lipstick and wears a yellow ruffled summer dress. She lightly pushes at the wire mesh and ruefully blows a kiss toward her daughter. The girl’s father stands stoically next to her mother, smiling and brave, like the soldier he still is. The girl is half sitting up and straining to see the details of them, but they are so far away. She wishes they could all leave together and drive to the beach in their yellow Plymouth convertible and swim under the hot sun.
“A present for you,” her father says, and he aims and tosses a bright green rubber frog in a gentle arc toward the bed. It bounces off and onto the floor, skittering away. “Oh, dear,” her mother cries, “now it’s no good.” The girl knows this is true; anything that touches the floor is taken away because now it has germs on it. She fears for the fate of her lifelong panda bear with the black button eyes. “We’ll get you another one next time,” her father announces, fixing the problem.”
 After the first month, Judith was taken out of quarantine and moved to a ward with other recovering children. She spent four more months there, for a total of five months in the hospital, away from her family. Understaffing made things harder. Judith says: ‘I remember things being so bad that we had to share a bedpan, over and over, passing it around.  
While I was in the hospital, my family was ostracized. People stayed away from them because they thought they were contagious.”

After returning home, Judith had a severe fear of being abandoned, and was afraid to let her mother out of her sight. Once her mother left Judith in the car to go into a store. The distraught little girl became hysterical and started screaming, causing a crowd to gather around the car.

Judith concludes: “I was lucky. Only one leg was left paralyzed. I went through physical rehabilitation and had surgeries. I developed severe scoliosis and had to wear a back brace along with the leg brace. I was anxious and depressed, although in those days people didn’t talk about their feelings, and so I didn’t either.” Judith was also surprised to discover that her sister believed she had lost all feelings in her leg. That was not true; she had “total feelings” in the leg.
Judith recovered. But she concludes: “I never really had a childhood. I never played sports, danced, ran or hiked in the woods.
If there’d been a vaccine, obviously I would have been vaccinated.”
She does not understand why anyone would refuse to vaccinate. From her point of view, they are lucky to be ignorant about the potential consequences of such a decision.


  1. I would like to show my appreciation to this person’s personal testimony and her honesty in her experience.

    I would also note the rarity of this case.

    According to the CDC’s Pinkbook on Poliomyelitis: "Up to 95% of all polio infections are inapparent or asymptomatic … fewer than 1% of all polio infections result in flaccid paralysis. Many persons with paralytic poliomyelitis recover completely and, in most, muscle function returns to some degree."


  2. Thank you for your comment, I will pass your appreciation on. Note, however, that one percent is not that rare, and that at the time before vaccines, this meant over 10000 cases in the U.S. each year of paralytic polio - in 1941-1950 we are talking of an average of close to 20,000 cases and 1393 deaths a year: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=209448. Today, thanks to high rates of vaccination, you no longer have to worry about that; but before the polio vaccine, it was not rare.

  3. To remind you, 1% of the U.S. population would be 3,000,000 people.

  4. AmandaRuth, thank you for reading my story. I was struck by your comments that paralytic polio is rare, because you seem to be saying my story is therefore not significant and also that not that many children were left paralyzed. If you were to add up the number of cases of paralysis in each wave of the epidemic, which spanned many years (I know someone paralyzed from contracting it in the 1930s), the number becomes very significant.

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  6. A comment from John Leavitt:
    "Thank you Dorit for writing this story and Judy for telling it. I have written about Judy's experience on a number of ocassions. Judy and I grew up in Rowayton CT and our memories are exactly the same, even her description of learning to swim. We were playing together when her contraction of polio began. I remember this in my mind's eye and the thought of that early evening comes back to me often. I wrote the following some time ago:
    Shortly after I arrived at the Bureau of Biologics of the FDA (at the Natl. Insts. of Health) all the staff were tested for polio antibody titre in our blood because I was going to grow the live poliovirus. A titre of 1:8 to 1:32 (negative serum:immune serum) achieved by vaccination is thought to provide immunity to poliovirus. I had a titre that was basically off-scale (1:>>>5000). This finding confirmed that I had once had the natural infection. I believe that this was when I was four or five because I remember playing with my friend Judy (about 1949)in our front yard at dusk. My parents also connected the dots although at the time we had no proof of the timing of our infections. Judy went home with a fever and ended up in an iron lung. I was the lucky one because I ended up with a flu-like disease with no apparent paralysis. Today you don’t often see people walking around with leg braces due to polio but this was not that uncommon before the 1970s. One of my Ph.D. advisors, Garrett Ihler who was a a brilliant scientist, wore one. I have always been aware that I favor my right leg tremendously but this only shows up when skiing or skating. I hate to bring this up in light of Judy's struggle; but it is worth mentioning that poliovirus infections left less dramatic physical effects on some of the unparalyzed.
    I am so happy that you both told this story. John Leavitt

  7. Thank you for sharing your story. I could never understand why some people in this day and age would not want their children to be vaccinated. I Worked briefly with a woman that had polio when she was younger, she lost her oldest son to it. This woman was amazing she would type letters using her foot and she could even drive!

  8. Thank you for sharing this. My great uncle was paralyzed from polio, in the 20s. He was a child, at the time and his family was upper middle class, living a clean and healthy life. His 4 sisters were all fine. That is scary, to me.