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by Marcia Jacobsen Comer

I was my parents’ firstborn. Mom told me she believed I may have been exposed to polio at the home of a woman who cared for young children. I would stay there due to my baby sister being at Children’s Hospital with cystic fibrosis. My parents were struggling, Dad working, and Mom at the hospital with my sister as much as possible. My sister lived for eleven months. Not long after that traumatic loss, I contracted polio. I was four years old.

What Polio Treatment Was Like

In terrible pain, I was sent to the hospital by my pediatrician. My memories of the hospital, even that young, are clear. The smell of antiseptic and alcohol. Austere surroundings. The sounds–clanking and muffled. Doctors and nurses who were complete strangers. I felt so lost. It was all so scary.

A sound that became very familiar was the metal cart that brought the steam table. Not for food but for steaming hot wool packs that were wrapped all over my body. They hurt and itched terribly. I would hear the cart coming down the hall and hope with all my being it would pass my door. When it did not and turned into my room, I would begin to cry. It seemed like torture.

The doctors had learned heat was helpful in combating polio. Thus, everything was hot. The penicillin shots I was given to keep me from contracting other diseases while my body was fighting the polio virus were hot and hurt like crazy. Being alone in the hospital at four years old and being treated by doctors and nurses who were doing all they could to help me was very difficult to understand. Especially when everything hurt.

How Polio Affected My Family

My parents had to drive over an hour to get from our house to the hospital. In 1953, there were no freeways in our area. It was a hardship for the whole family. When a child has a disease like polio, the whole family has polio. Every person is impacted by trying to keep things going. There is no normal.

The hospital bill was an additional hardship. My parents were not well off to begin with, nor were their families. They paid bills and simply did without if they could not afford something. There was no health insurance or, at least in my memory, nobody had any. Hospital and doctor bills were intense. My mom paid $10 per month to our pediatrician for decades. Back then, $10 was a lot of money. It just never seemed to end.

After what felt like forever–the pain, treatment, and feeling alone and scared in the hospital–one day Mom came to be with me. The doctors told her I could go home. She had no idea this was coming, and I had no clothes or shoes. She didn’t want to drive all the way home to get some, so she went into town and bought me undies, a new dress, shoes, and socks. I felt like a princess.

What It Took to Recover From Polio

We drove home with me lying down in the back seat. She told me to keep down as we approached our garage, where my dad was working in his workshop. Then, she had me pop up and surprise him. Oh, the joy! He was over the moon happy to see me, and I was so happy to be home! I had survived!

But that wasn’t the end of it, aftercare continued, much to my dismay: soaking in a hot galvanized tub twice a day and painful physical therapy on a towel on the kitchen floor. We had no bathtub, so this was the system my mom used. She did a lot of work to get me back to where I could walk and drag only one leg. Special shoes would have to be purchased. Many trips to my pediatrician in town, an hour’s drive each way, and many weeks of hot penicillin shots were in my future. It was a long time before anything resembling normal returned.

Due to my mom’s hard physical therapy work and some luck, I didn’t end up in a leg brace like my cousin and so many others. As time went on, I did a lot of swimming in summer, and my mobility improved some. My left foot and leg were never quite right, and in second grade, the doctor encouraged mom to push me to work on mobility. She signed me up for ballet class. That was a real stretch for them financially and in terms of driving an hour each way after school once a week to take me to class. That continued for about a year and likely helped.

Later in life I tried again to be a dancer. My left leg and foot never worked right. I managed to do enough that it felt good to participate, but of course, I never could get past that low level of strength no matter how much I practiced or wanted to do so. In adulthood, I ended up finally having surgery on my left foot to straighten it and deal with a problematic toe. So now, in my elder years, I have worsened arthritis in that foot.

All of This Can Be Avoided

The worry of post-polio syndrome has always been there. I have been told it usually appears in a patient’s 50s or so. I may be past that window, but it’s still in my mind. I think Long COVID may be similar? There is much we don’t yet know. Best to get vaccinated and avoid it. Then you don’t have to think about Long COVID too!

So, good old polio is still impacting my life. Yet, I am one of the lucky ones. So many have dealt with so much more. I have been fortunate not to face post-polio syndrome, which many who survived have faced. I have not faced multiple surgeries like my cousin has faced. I have been very fortunate to have had a pretty normal life, even given that precarious beginning.

Let me close with this. Please vaccinate your children. Please allow them not to face any of this–because they don’t have to. They don’t have to experience the pain, the fear, the trauma, the financial devastation, any of it. It is completely avoidable if only you will do the right thing. Protect them. Please. Vaccinations save lives.

Marcia Comer, 75, worked in aerospace, law offices and banking, and lives on an island in Washington State with her husband and rescue beagle. Her story, like all others on this blog, was a voluntary submission. If you want to help make a difference, submit your own post by emailing us through our contact form. We depend on real people like you sharing experience to protect others from misinformation.

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