As a Shot@Life Champion I am so hopeful that we WILL eradicate Polio in our lifetime!!!! However, in order to gain more support I think people need a reminder of how it was before we had the polio vaccine. Today’s guest post is by my friend Jennifer Carney…..
The polio vaccine has been around since the 1950’s. It came about as a result of a monumental effort from an American president buoyed by a groundswell of support from terrified mothers. It can be difficult to imagine what it was like to be a mother in the days before the polio vaccine. It can be difficult to picture what it was like for an active 39-year-old politician named Franklin Roosevelt to be diagnosed with a disease that could lead to paralysis or even death. Polio put Roosevelt in a wheel chair. It put others in machines called iron lungs.
I am profoundly glad that polio does not exist in the United States today. I am profoundly glad that the only way that polio will touch most kids’ lives is through the momentary discomfort of the vaccination. My kids reacted the way most kids do to vaccines. They cried. They looked at me as though I had betrayed them somehow, taking them to the mean doctor with the needle. By the time we left, they had completely forgotten.
Most kids – and really, now, most people are totally unaware of polio. They don’t know any survivors. They’ve never seen it. They’ve never even thought about it. That is how it should be. But we can’t forget that the only reason we’re able to be ignorant of polio is because of the vaccine.
When my grandmother was my age – when her three boys were young – she and all young mothers in her generation were painfully aware of polio. Outbreaks happened regularly. The most they could do was to collect their dimes and hope their kids would be spared. Her luck ran out in 1954, when her oldest son – my father – was diagnosed with polio at the age of 8.
It’s hard for me to imagine what this must have been like for her – or for my dad. We don’t talk about this often. It’s present in different ways, but it doesn’t define him. Of course, it’s impossible to imagine what his life would have been like without the presence of polio. In some ways, he was lucky. Polio affected his right leg, leaving it much thinner than his left leg – but he can walk.
My dad is in his 60’s now. He’s retired and living in Florida. He drags my mother out to karaoke at least once a week. My mother drags him out to the pool nearly every day. He only recently realized that there are actually real advantages to applying for a handicapped parking permit. I think it took him that long to consider himself as handicapped.
When my own son was born two months early in 2006, I turned to the March of Dimes. They are in the unique position of having to change their mission – because they were so successful with their first mission. In 1955 – just one year after my dad’s bout with polio – Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine became available.
In the wake of my son’s birth, I found the book Polio: An American History by David Oshinsky. For most of us polio is just that – history. But when my dad and grandmother came to visit, I gave the book to him to read. He read it quickly – absorbing it as he went. For him, this wasn’t history. It was an ongoing tale. He hadn’t known that the Salk vaccine was actually undergoing human trials in 1954, when he contracted the disease. He missed out on the trials. He missed out on the vaccine.
I am forever grateful that my children and I will never know how that feels.