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by Wesley Moss

When I had polio, I was 16 months old, growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. I remember being outside one day and suddenly unable to walk with one leg. As I began to cry, my older brother picked me up and carried me home to get help. And then the next thing I remember is being in an iron lung.

I have vivid memories of seeing my mom and my dad at the window, screaming and yelling while I was in that thing. I stayed in the hospital for two months before recovering. Afterward, I couldn’t walk on my left leg anymore. A doctor in the nearby town of Greenwood had me wearing special shoes for months before putting me in a leg brace at the age of two.

Just two years later, Jonas Salk’s vaccine came out.

Coping with Partial Paralysis

Throughout my childhood and early teens, I had to have several surgeries. For example, when I started wearing my leg brace, my ankle would always rub against the metal and develop blisters. So they did an operation to fuse my ankle. 

I also needed an operation on my right toe to relax the muscle. My right foot was stronger than my left, so when I took the brace off I’d hop around on it like a jackhammer. I later had surgery on my right knee to slow its growth and let my left leg catch up. It didn’t fix my gait but it could have been worse. 

One thing left unchanged is that my feet are two different sizes.

Growing Up After Polio

When I was a kid, schools still weren’t integrated, so my elementary school was smaller. This meant I was the only kid in the whole school with a disability from polio. Even in high school, there was only one other kid who was affected, and it was only in his foot.

It was a traumatic time for me. I would get looks based on how I walked. Kids would make fun of me and call me a cripple. When I started puberty and wanted to date girls, no one was interested in me.

I was smart enough to realize that I couldn’t do physical work when I grew up. My dad had a trucking business, but he told me that wasn’t something I could do. Instead, he and my mom pushed me to try and get an education.

When I graduated college and started working back in 1974, you didn’t have something like the Americans with Disabilities Act like you do now. You didn’t have accessibility in schools or workplaces. People affected by polio had to work hard for accommodations, which is part of the reason they exist today.

Post-Polio Syndrome

I began to see the long-term effects of polio in my 30s. I would go to exercise and try to use the leg press machine. When I used my left leg to push, the nerves would end up in serious pain for a few days. That’s when I first noticed what would be a growing problem. 

Eventually, I was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, a progressive neurological condition that can develop decades after infection. It has all sorts of effects, from weakness, numbness, and tingling to worsened mental health. I used to be able to take my leg brace off at night and walk around, but these days, I need a cane to walk. Fortunately, I’m also a member of the post-polio association in Atlanta where I live now, and they act as a support group.

Proof Polio Vaccines Work

Though the polio vaccine came out after I had polio, I still got it anyway. I remember we all went to the nearest elementary school, and nurses gave it out to people waiting in line, kind of like how it was with COVID.

heard about cases of paralytic polio. I remember reading an article about someone who was paralyzed by it in 1958 and that was like wow! Because anybody who saw how debilitating it is to your muscles and nervous system got that vaccine.

Trying to explain that to somebody nowadays, when even many doctors are not familiar with polio, is difficult. But this virus took a lot of lives, and I am here to tell you that the vaccine works. 

Today, even a single case of paralytic polio in the whole United States is rare. The only cases we see today come from abroad. But who knows? Maybe some folks out there won’t vaccinate and it will circulate here again.

I was the only kid in my school living with the effects of polio for a reason. I’m sure there would have been others if that vaccine was never invented.

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