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Why Is No One Talking About Polio? Print-ready version

The disease infected thousands when it tore through the U.S. Sixty-five years later, we’re back to where we were pre-vaccine

by Sheila Weller
Air Mail
May 23, 2020

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It was July 1954 and my seven-year-old sister, Lizzie, had been relegated to a big rented hospital bed upstairs in our Beverly Hills house - I exiled, for my safety, in the maid's room downstairs. Our mother's whispers rose in panic; even our father, a steely neurosurgeon, was uncharacteristically alarmed.

After a few days an ambulance was called, and Lizzie, burning with fever, felt the horrible indignity of cars pulling alongside the siren-blaring vehicle and people peering at her through the window. "At Children's Hospital Los Angeles, I screamed and cried all night until a nurse came in and chastised me for waking everyone up," she recalled over the phone recently. The humiliating treatments during her two-month stay included scalding-hot packs, forced enemas, and dips into 100-degree water. Gravely ill, just barely able to evade an iron lung, my sister was one of almost 39,000 Americans, mostly children, to contract polio that year - nearly 58,000 were infected with the virally spread disease at its peak, in 1952 - but one of the extremely few victims, as chance would have it, in our small Beverly Hills Flats community.

My Sister and Mia Farrow

In fact, of the approximately 1,865 cases in L.A. County that year, very few were from our community, my sister being one. Another was Mia Farrow, who lived a half-dozen blocks west of us and had contracted the disease five months earlier, the day after her ninth birthday - "My childhood ended then," she's said. After developing a high fever and a weakness in her legs so severe she was unable to walk, Mia's parents called the pediatrician.

While he gave her a spinal tap, Mia told me on the phone recently, in the next room "I heard the drone of my parents and siblings reciting the Rosary." Would she die? Would she infect her family? Those thoughts pulsed through her young mind, and would for a long time. In an isolation ward for her first three weeks in hospital, Mia was also treated gruffly by the nurses - no celebrity privileges there for the daughter of director John Farrow and actress Maureen O'Sullivan. "We were in a long ward, all terrified and torn from our parents, who could only 'visit' us through the glass and wave," Mia said.

Many hospitals were not physically equipped to handle the surge of patients during the polio epidemic. "Our ward was a large room packed to the gills with beds on both sides of the walls," my sister says to me. "Eventually, they had to start putting beds down the middle of the room as well. I even remember beds lining the hallways." It was a time of dire panic, especially among American parents, since this epidemic targeted children - and lifetime paralysis could be the upshot. Just like confident middle-class Americans would never, a year ago, have imagined the coronavirus pandemic, prosperous postwar suburbanites never expected this horrifying disease, which, according to one survey from the time, incited only less fear than that of nuclear war. (Just recently, we've learned that the coronavirus, originally thought to be particularly dangerous to seniors, is likely linked to a serious and rare immune response similar to Kawasaki disease in school-age children.)

The terror over the disease's contagiousness was such that Mia's parents actually "burned all the furniture in the house, tore up the lawn, and drained the swimming pool" while she was hospitalized. She came home to destruction. Meanwhile, every evening my sister waited to be discharged by our father; not only did he not discharge her, he barely visited. When she was discharged, she rose to triumphantly "walk for Daddy!" and fell right on the floor.

True Grit

My sister and Mia drew lifelong resilience from their polio - and so did other women like them who went on from polio-stricken childhoods to achieve outsize accomplishments. Mia, who has raised 14 children, has had roles in around 50 movies, and, as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, has traveled the globe urging for international aid for war-torn countries such as Darfur, says, "The girl down the ward from me, Kathy, and I would shout to each other: 'Keep breathing! Don't fall apart!' I had never been so determined in my life." She adds, "Polio gave me grit."

My friend Judy Collins - who has released 27 studio albums over a 65-year career that re-peaked last fall; who, at 81, still tours three-quarters of the year; and who's conquered depression, tuberculosis, and alcoholism, and withstood the suicide of her only child - also contracted the virus at age 10. "I was in Children's Hospital in Denver for a couple of months in 1950 and nobody could visit, not even my parents," she said to me. "Being knocked down and stopped in my tracks by polio gave me a deeper energy to go further, to do more."

Then there's Joni Mitchell, a lifelong workaholic in painting and music. At 10, she spent months in St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon, Canada - her alarming condition at the end of 1953 led her to be airlifted in. Joni has said that the arduousness of teaching herself to stand and walk made her leave the hospital promising (in a wish to the ward Christmas tree) to "make something of myself." Her second husband, Larry Klein, told me, "Joni's bout with polio sculpted her inner resolve. She talked about polio as the thing that changed her." Joni went on to become, along with Bob Dylan, one of the greatest songwriters of the generation. (Dylan's own father survived polio, too.)

As for my sister: she emerged from polio a school hero. Despite a limp, she became an energetic dancer in college and then a till-the-wee-hours waitress at the coolest artists' hangout in Manhattan. In the early 70s, even while a single mother in those years before day care, she managed to graduate No. 1 in her law-school class of more than 300 and was the only female law-school graduate invited to join L.A.'s most blue-chip corporate-law firm as a young associate, later becoming a successful entertainment attorney in Atlanta and L.A. She has seen tragedy up close: her husband was the second loved one who died in her arms - our mother was the first. After her husband's death, of an aneurysm, while remaining a full-time lawyer she reprised her role as single mom, then as a hands-on grandmother of two, and a generous problem solver for countless friends and relatives, a grateful me being one of them.

"You always ask me why I'm so strong," Liz said to me the other month as the coronavirus was colliding with a horrifying degradation of her body. "It's because of the polio." Of that she was certain.

Polio, Schmolio

It turns out that many great over-achievers have been polio survivors, either from the peak pre - Salk vaccine epidemic in the first half of the 50s (during which about 175,000 Americans were infected) or during polio's smaller appearances in the preceding decades. These include such diverse victims as: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, paralyzed long before he became the U.S.'s only three-term president; Adelaide Chatfield-Taylor Kernochan, who served as a UNESCO consultant in the 50s, traveling the world and meeting eminences such as Indira Gandhi in a wheelchair and on crutches ("And she was stubborn - 'Don't help me! I can do it myself!'" says her daughter, the filmmaker Sarah Kernochan); Britain's Antony Armstrong-Jones, first Earl of Snowdon (Princess Margaret's husband); Neil Young; Carol Burnett; violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman; Donald Sutherland; the golfer Jack Nicklaus; Francis Ford Coppola; even Mitch McConnell.

In fact, in the 90s there were so many polio survivors in both the House and Senate they called themselves the "Polio Caucus" and lunched together every other Thursday.

Dr. Richard L. Bruno, a psychophysiologist who is head of the International Centre for Polio Education, has studied the disease - which was basically banished from the U.S. after the 1955 Salk vaccine but still exists, in a related form, in very low numbers in some countries in Africa and Asia - for decades. He is also a longtime investigator of polio's long and largely unknown afterlife. The author of the 2002 book The Polio Paradox, and someone with whom I have spoken often in recent weeks, Bruno has found that the strength and stubborn can-do ethic of the disease's survivors is not coincidental. In a 1985 survey that Bruno conducted of 676 North American polio survivors, participants exhibited 50 percent more Type A behavior than did members of the non-disabled general population. They were "time-conscious, driven, self-denying, perfectionistic, over-achieving."

The Disease That Never Went Away

Tragically, another study around the same time found that there was such a thing, suspected as far back as the 1950s, as post-polio sequelae, or post-polio syndrome (PPS). In 1982, about 30 years after most of America's polio cases appeared - and when the survivors, like my sister and Mia and Judy and Joni, were well on with their accomplished lives - a phenomenon, now the dominant explanation for PPS that Bruno calls "overuse-abuse," was being indicated: motor neurons (cells in the spinal cord and brain which cause muscles to work) killed by the polio virus had been secretly having their work done for years by neighboring motor neurons, causing them to wear out from overuse until, as Bruno told me on the phone, there was "nobody left at home."

For most, this greater damage had yet to appear. In short, as Bruno emphasized with big block letters in his book, "Polio was thought to be a 'stable disease'. Once polio survivors recovered muscle strength after the polio attack, their physical abilities were supposed to remain for the rest of their lives. However, contrary to this common belief," and without their knowing it, Bruno continued, "polio survivors' strength and abilities were ebbing away" - even in parts of their bodies never impaired by the polio.

It was about this time that my sister's polio-affected leg suddenly gave out during a high-heeled walk with law colleagues in Century City. She stopped wearing high heels but continued to live as she knew she should: eating well, doing Pilates, swimming almost every day. Then came the grand irony, outdoing the irony of her near-singular attack by polio in our community, and that of missing immunization by the Salk vaccine by a mere nine months. Her own motor neurons were turning against her.

In 2000, Mia - whose then 11-year-old son, Thaddeus, adopted from Calcutta, was paraplegic from polio (he would tragically commit suicide in 2016, at the age of 27) - co-signed, along with her son, the moving and informative "The Post-Polio Letter," written by Dr. Bruno to try to spread the word about the still largely unknown PPS phenomenon (made even more unknown by the fact that there was no registry of long-ago polio survivors).

Dr. Bruno estimates that of the 1.8 million living polio survivors in the U.S., virtually all of them have some kind of damage. (Estimated numbers of living polio survivors vary.) Mia has not had much PPS - "I am fortunate," she says. Liz, on the other hand, has recently been hit with severe damage that is worsening every day. In November, shortly before the first coronavirus victim fell ill in Wuhan, her body began its frightening decline. She couldn't climb stairs. She cut down on her beloved swimming. Good-bye, Pilates. She woke at night with twitching and muscle spasms all over her body - places never affected by her lifetime-ago polio. She fitted herself for a wheelchair.

"I never dreamed that the disease I conquered 65 years ago would lie in wait and attack my body," my sister texted me recently. Nor did she imagine - none of us did - that a huge, deadly pandemic would come crashing in on us, indefinitely delaying her, and countless others', needed tests and symptoms-relieving medications, medical providers having been urgently summoned to the new crisis.

I call my sister a hero, but she will have none of it. Her tough humility and levelheadedness are further proof that she's in that rare alum association: survivors of the terrifying children's epidemic that raced through our country so many decades ago.

Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books, including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge

This article has been viewed 1,637 times since being added on May 25, 2020.

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