Ken Oerter still remembers the day he fell ill with the mysterious sickness that was rampaging across the country, killing children and forcing families to isolate in their homes.
He grew dizzy and weak just before he passed out on the playground of his country school near Reynolds, Nebraska, in September 1945. Eight-year-old Ken was eventually loaded into the family car and driven over bumpy back roads to a hospital in Omaha where his parents received the grim news: he had polio, an incurable disease known to cause paralysis or even death.
For Oerter, now 83, and others of his generation, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought back memories of the fear and heartbreak caused by polio.
“This past year has been a lot like the time I spent confined to the home,” Oerter said, referencing Omaha’s Hattie B. Munroe Home for Convalescing Crippled Children, a predecessor of today’s Munroe-Meyer Institute. He spent eight months in painful therapy, often involving hot, stinky towels, but avoided the dreadful iron lung.
“Then, I was without my parents. This year, I have been without my children and grandchildren.”
Now a North Platte resident, Oerter fell ill near the beginning of a wave of polio that built in the late 1940s and early '50s, and crested with an epidemic in the late summer of 1952 that sickened nearly 58,000 Americans.
In that awful year, more than 21,000 suffered paralysis — almost all of them children or young adults. More than 3,000 died.
Nearly 70 years later, the same generation that survived polio was hit especially hard by COVID-19. They have suffered the worst of the two biggest disease outbreaks of the last hundred years, after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, but the polio generation has also participated in the two highest-profile mass-vaccination campaigns in history.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed vaccines that ultimately crushed polio. Parents lined up their children by the thousands during campaigns fueled by modern public relations tactics.
This year, the polio generation has lined up again for shots of COVID-19 vaccine, delivered following a development campaign called Operation Warp Speed. But the campaign has been tinged by politics and hampered by a large contingent of vaccine skeptics who have resisted taking it.
“The country was united against (polio),” said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “The country is divided for COVID.”
'Everyone was in fear'
During its heyday, polio was every bit as terrifying as COVID-19 is today. Perhaps more so, because the large majority of its victims were children.
Now it's known that polio is caused by an intestinal infection, spread through exposure to fecal waste via unwashed hands or shared objects. Most cases are mild, with no symptoms or just a fever and sore throat. But more severe cases spread to the central nervous system, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis in the legs, arms, or even the diaphragm. A small number of cases affect the brain and cause death.
But that wasn’t understood in those days, not even by doctors. Terrified parents employed their own form of social-distancing, keeping their children indoors and away from other kids during the summer, when polio cases peaked. They especially stopped them from swimming, because lakes, streams and pools were thought to spread the disease.
“It was a literal nightmare,” said Dr. Byron Oberst, 98, who was then a young pediatrician in Omaha. “The whole community was panicky. Everyone was in fear.”
Polio struck especially hard in the upper Midwest. A 1953 article in the journal Public Health showed Nebraska with one of the highest reported polio rates in the country. For five years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only South Dakota and Idaho had more.
“It certainly was widespread throughout the state, everywhere,” Oberst recalled. “(People) would lock themselves in the house, they were so afraid.”
Today there are an estimated 80,000 polio survivors in the United States, said Elaine Allen, executive director of the Nebraska Polio Survivors Association. Her group has 934 members, but she believes there are several times that many across the state. Almost all of them are at least 70 years old, because vaccines developed in the 1950s all but wiped out the disease.
Even though the polio threat has nearly disappeared, children in the U.S. today still receive a version of the Salk vaccine with the inactive virus — four shots at intervals before age 6. The Sabin vaccine, which uses a live but weakened virus, is still used in other countries.
"Polio isn't on anybody's mind right now," said Khan. "Science worked."
'March of Dimes' fuels research
Polio — a newspaper headline writer’s abbreviation of “poliomyelitis” — dates to ancient times, Khan said. But it really only came to public attention in the 20th century.
The first documented outbreak occurred in Vermont in 1894. In 1910, Dr. H.M. McClanahan of Omaha reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association on a Nebraska outbreak the previous summer that resulted in 91 deaths. Recorded cases increased in the following decades, punctuated by a 1916 epidemic centered in the Northeast that claimed 27,000 lives.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the prominent former assistant Navy secretary, contracted a paralytic disease diagnosed as polio in 1921, at the age of 39. That brought new attention to polio, especially after he was elected president in 1932 — although some current-day experts who have studied his case believe he may actually have had Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare nervous system disorder with similar symptoms.
At the time, though, Roosevelt was closely associated with polio. In 1938 he started the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which came to be known as the “March of Dimes,” to take care of those afflicted with polio and to fund research toward a preventative vaccine.
The March of Dimes created a grassroots network in every community across the country. The organization pioneered the modern fundraising campaign, placing attractive “poster children” in newspaper ads and recruiting high-profile volunteers to lead local fundraising campaigns — led by President Roosevelt himself.
Money sent in, often directly to the White House, underwrote years of research by a then-unknown Dr. Salk, in Pittsburgh, and also supported Sabin’s work.
“These were the dollars that eventually paid for the development of the vaccine,” Khan said. “It was their version of Operation Warp Speed. They funded it with ‘drop in your dimes.’”
Case levels soared after World War II — seemingly a paradox, since sanitation systems were continually improving.
Public health researchers now theorize that in past centuries, when sanitation was poorer, young children developed mild cases of polio that gave them immunity to the disease later on, Khan said. It’s now known that 72% of people who contract polio never develop symptoms, and another 24% minor symptoms, though all can still pass on the disease to others. Only about 1 in 200 develop paralysis.
The postwar surge in cases, may reflect the postwar baby boom. There were simply more children to get sick.
Polio story: Suffer the children
Kathleen Gillies Brown of Omaha was two months shy of her seventh birthday when she was struck with polio in July 1947. Under quarantine, she was isolated from her parents and sister for two weeks.
“Because everything happened so quickly, I was not prepared to be isolated from my family, and didn’t understand why,” Brown said.
All around her, children were crying in pain. Kathleen’s mother prayed for her to be spared that agony, and it must have worked.
“I never felt pain,” she said. “The doctor was amazed as he called my parents each day to report on my condition. Even though my arms and legs were twisted with the horrors of polio, I would always have a smile for him as I told him I was fine.”
Kathleen’s mother credited prayer. It might also have been treatment with curare, a bitter substance extracted from South American plants formerly used by natives of the region to poison darts and arrows.
Desperate doctors used it for polio patients because it could relax spastic muscles and ease pain. But it could also kill. Kathleen said curare was sprinkled in her food.
“I found the food to taste so bad, I didn’t want to eat it,” she recalled.
After seven months hospitalized, she was well enough to go home. The principal of her school, Central Park Elementary, picked her up every day because she couldn’t walk a mile to school.
“Two of the older boys in the school would meet me at the door and carry me upstairs to my classroom,” Brown said. “I have been told by parents that one leg would drag as I got tired, but I wasn’t really aware of that. It never seemed to slow me down.”
Over the next year, her sister, aunt and two cousins also contracted polio.
The epidemic built to a crescendo in 1952, a year children and medical professionals remember with horror.
“Polio came in like the whirlwind of a tornado,” Oberst said.
He worked at Children’s Hospital, which he said treated 360 polio patients that year. The 14 iron lungs — large machines that immobilized the patients, and pressed on their bodies to keep them breathing — were constantly filled.
For Oberst, the polio patients passed by that summer in a busy blur. But over all these years, the one he remembers the best is Connie Cronin Finney, a 10-year-old from Columbus he calls his “miracle child.”
She was the oldest of three daughters. In late August 1952, her younger sister, Kathy, just 3 ½, contracted polio and died within days at a hospital in Grand Island.
Connie’s parents had not even buried Kathy yet when Connie fell ill. Instead of seeking treatment in Grand Island, where one daughter had just died, they got her admitted to Children’s Hospital in Omaha just before Labor Day weekend. Dr. Oberst was her supervising physician.
“My temperature was between 105 and 108. I was having almost continual convulsions and was surrounded by cold body packs,” Finney, who now lives in Omaha, said in an email.
Oberst described Connie’s case in his 2013 memoir, “Miracles and Other Unusual Medical Experiences,” noting that he had tried all the standard treatments at the time, but nothing worked. He said few people could survive with a temperature elevated so high for so long.
On Labor Day Sunday, her parents asked what they could do. Their doctor urged them to pray.
“I’ve done everything in my quiver,” Oberst, in an interview, recalled telling them. “I said, ‘Why don’t you storm Heaven?’”
Two days later, Oberst returned to the hospital, expecting the worst.
But over the holiday, Connie’s fever had broken and the convulsions stopped.
“I had my first real, true miracle at that time,” Oberst said. “It had to be the prayers — no question in my mind.”
Iron lung was source of children's nightmares
Connie had turned a corner, but her battle wasn’t yet over. She was hospitalized for another seven weeks, part of it in an iron lung — the ominous specter that hung over children of the polio generation.
Patients were immobilized inside the machine, with only their heads exposed, while the machine pressed on their diaphragms to keep them breathing. Those placed in an iron lung were already deathly ill.
“I just remember not being able to move, to barely lift my eyelids to see,” said Rona Rockwell Wasiak, 83, of Omaha, who spent part of the seven months she was hospitalized with polio in 1951 and 1952 locked in an iron lung.
Marjorie Girnus Lessig of Omaha fell ill during the 1952 pandemic and was placed in an iron lung because she couldn’t breathe on her own.
“They put an ice tent over my head to bring down my fever,” recalled Lessig, who is now 83. “I was critical for a time. But with a lot of prayers, I recovered and went home.”
Connie was placed in a room with four or five other children in iron lungs. It was a helpless feeling, needing nurses to take care of every need.
“They bathed us, fed us, talked to us, and tried to keep us entertained,” said Finney. “We saw the other children and the nurses through mirrors above our iron lungs. I often had a book affixed to the mirror, and I would wait for a nurse to come along and turn the page for me.”
She took physical therapy during short periods out of the iron lung and slowly regained strength. Amazingly, she had no paralysis.
“For awhile they had not known whether I would walk again or not,” Finney said. “But one evening I walked to (my parents) when the elevator doors opened.”
“I have always known that I had an amazing recovery,” she added. "Some of the children I knew from the hospital did not survive, and others were disabled for life.”
Torturous treatment — smelly, scalding towels
Physicians in the polio era had few effective treatments for a disease they barely understood. For years the standard treatment was strict bedrest while immobilizing the affected limbs with splints and bulky plaster casts to keep the muscles from stretching, which was torturous for the patients.
Then in 1940, “Sister” Elizabeth Kenny, a self-styled nurse (she had no formal training) brought a folk cure to the United States from her decades of work in the Australian bush.
Kenny favored wrapping limbs in scalding hot towels and gently exercising muscles to keep them active. Much of the medical establishment — including the March of Dimes — considered this quackery, but she won over doctors at the Mayo Institute in Rochester, Minnesota.
She established the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis in 1942, touting her methods with the zeal of an evangelist and the promotional skills of P.T. Barnum. She became one of the nation’s most admired women, according to a 1951 Gallup survey.
Parents demanded the Sister Kenny therapy for their children, and the March of Dimes reluctantly paid for them.
It certainly was the favored treatment in Omaha. It made a lasting impression on patients like James Wiederin, who contracted polio as a 6-year-old living on a farm in Carroll County, Iowa.
Nurses applied the thick, steaming pads on his back, from his skull to his tailbone, and on his arms to his elbows.
“I remember the hot packs made me feel trapped from all the weight,” said Wiederin, now 75 and living in Omaha, in an email. “I would often wake up and still have the pads on my back, thinking I was paralyzed.”
“The smell was atrocious. Probably like burnt skin,” recalled Debbie Bowman, 69, who contracted polio in 1955 as a 3-year-old in Springfield, Nebraska.
Millie Lil, 79, of Denison, Iowa, can't forget how the nurse on her polio ward in 1945 would reach into the boiling water with a stick and run the steaming wool blanket through a wringer before wrapping it around her legs.
"Too hot for her to touch with her bare hands," Lil said 75 years later, "but not too hot for my 4-year-old legs."
The Sister Kenny treatments were no picnic for the nuns and nurses who had to administer them, either, said Ann Zimmerman Gaul, 91, of Council Bluffs. She was a senior student nurse at what was then Mercy Hospital in the polio summer of 1952.
The hot packs they used were made of wool army blankets, heated and spun in spinning devices, and they really did relieve the patients’ pain and paralysis, she said.
But the wards had no air conditioning and few fans, she said.
“Talk about being warm! Our starched white uniforms wilted pretty fast in that atmosphere,” Gaul said in an email. “Our wonderful instructors, the Sisters of Mercy, worked alongside us. They were in full nun gear, including the head coverings, so we really couldn’t complain.”
Polio strikes West Point schoolhouse
The pandemic hit hard in District 25, a rural district with a one-room schoolhouse outside of West Point, Nebraska.
The tiny district served a few families who farmed the adjacent section — including the Nebudas, the Greves and the Wielers. Of 17 children in the three families, six fell ill with polio between 1952 and 1955.
One child died, and three others were left permanently paralyzed — though each made a mark before dying at a relatively young age, said Rita Nebuda Kleeman, the younger sister of three of the polio victims.
Marlene Nebuda was 11 and Maxine Nebuda was 8, two of the oldest of nine children in their family, when both fell ill within days of each other in late 1952.
The two girls were in side-by-side beds for a short time at St. Joseph Hospital in Omaha, where their Aunt Irene was a nurse, said Kleeman, who prepared a report and slideshow on the outbreak for her Rotary Club chapter last fall.
Maxine Nebuda suffered severe weakness in her legs and was hospitalized for five weeks. She was still in severe pain when she came home. Nevertheless, she walked a mile to school and back each day over gravel roads using crutches. By Christmas time she could walk without them, Kleeman said.
Marlene was whisked away from Maxine’s side into an iron lung the day after a spinal tap at St. Joseph’s confirmed she had polio.
Doctors didn’t expect her to survive the night.
She did, though, and remained in the iron lung for nine months. Marlene then endured three back surgeries — all unsuccessful — to correct curvature of her spine. Then, a spinal fusion, confinement to a neck-to-hips cast, before she “graduated” to a back brace.
Marlene was paralyzed on her right side but regained the use of her left arm and leg. She attended school at the Hattie B. Munroe home, and eventually graduated from West Point Central Catholic High School in 1960, Kleeman said.
Joining her at Munroe was Arlan Greve, also 11, her neighbor and classmate in the one-room District 25 school. Arlan also was stricken that summer and left with permanent paralysis in his legs.
“I felt awful at first,” he told The World-Herald in 1972. “But the (Munroe) home had so many activities, you didn’t have time to feel sorry for yourself.”
He too went on to graduate from West Point High School.
Polio wasn’t finished with the tiny District 25 schoolhouse yet. Though the Salk vaccine began distribution in 1955, the three Wieler children — Richard (known as Dick), Diane and Mike — hadn’t received their shots yet. Their father had tried to get them immunized, Dick wrote in his self-published 2009 autobiography "Chasing Normality," but couldn't because a mishap at a laboratory temporarily stopped distribution of the vaccine before it reached West Point.
Dick, 15, a budding baseball star, became ill on Sept. 3 and was hospitalized in West Point the following day. He fell into a coma and was given the last rites of the Catholic Church.
Diane came down with polio on Sept 7, just four days after her brother. She quietly celebrated her 12th birthday in the hospital Sept. 9, Kleeman said. The following day, she was dead.
Dick emerged from his coma and spent five weeks in an iron lung. He watched the 1955 World Series using an attached mirror. He spent two years in rehab — including at Warm Springs, Georgia, the polio retreat created by President Roosevelt — before returning to West Point for his last two years of school.
But polio left him a quadriplegic, compelled to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Once an indifferent student, Dick became a top scholar in an era when high schools and universities saw no reason to “mainstream” students with disabilities.
Marlene Nebuda, Arlan Greve, and Richard Wieler all overcame paralysis and made a mark in their own way.
Greve married, fathered three children, and worked for years as a technician in the pathology department at Methodist Hospital in Omaha. And in October 1967, he made news by saving the life of a little boy.
Greve, then 26, looked out the back window of his home on South 61st Avenue. He saw a terrifying sight: 3-year-old Dean Zerbe, hanging unconscious by the hood of his jacket from the top of a gym set.
Greve hurried outside, maneuvered on his crutches to the fence, and flung himself over. He crawled to the gym, lifted the little boy off the bars, and revived him. Then he made his way to the house to alert the boy’s mother.
“I don’t know how I got up or got the boy down,” Greve told The World-Herald at the time. “I usually can’t do that sort of thing.”
The story was told in newspapers across the country, and Greve received numerous honors for his feat.
Arlan Greve did not live to old age. He died in his sleep Feb. 21, 1983, at age 41. Dean Zerbe, the grandson of a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, grew up to become a lawyer on the staff of Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. He was Grassley’s expert on protection of government whistleblowers, one of the senator’s signature issues.
Wieler, too, became a lawyer — his way paved in part because of a letter he wrote to The World-Herald in 1962 after the University of Illinois refused him admission because of his paralysis.
His letter noted it was cheaper to educate young people with disabilities than to have them languish “as useless wards of the state.”
“Why are thousands of handicapped people, victims of disease and accidents, allowed to go to waste because of a lack of opportunity?” Wieler wrote.
He was invited to attend the University of Missouri, where he completed an undergraduate degree and then law school — graduating 13th in a class of 108 in 1968.
Missouri Attorney General Jack Danforth (later a U.S. Senator) hired Wieler. He later worked alongside John Ashcroft, a future governor, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Attorney General; and Clarence Thomas, who became a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Thomas, who called Wieler “one of the giants in my life,” twice tried to hire him for jobs in Washington, according to Wieler’s 2009 memoir, “Chasing Normality.” And he traveled to Nebraska to visit Wieler, who retired in West Point in 2003.
Wieler died in April 2011, after his health deteriorated.
Marlene Nebuda worked her way through college, graduating from Briar Cliff College in 1965 and earning a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1971. She worked 33 years as a speech pathologist at a hospital in Sioux City.
Rita Kleeman served as her sister’s caregiver for four years while she attended college in Sioux City.
“I understood firsthand the aftermath of paralysis while caring for her; also the 'dogged determination' she exhibited,” Kleeman said in an email.
In a 1993 interview with the Sioux City Journal, Nebuda said her disability gave her a special bond with her speech patients, many of whom were children.
“They open up to me,” she said. “We are ‘equal.’ They can identify with me.”
Marlene Nebuda died in November 1998, after a bad reaction to a morphine injection for chronic pain. She was 57.
Rival vaccines bring 'sheer relief and gratitude'
Throughout the epidemics, Americans continued to drop coins in cans for the March of Dimes. And the March of Dimes continued to fund research at several labs.
Salk, who had opened his Pittsburgh lab in 1947, developed a “killed virus” vaccine grown on lab cultures from the kidneys of monkeys and rendered safe with formaldehyde.
Though this type was relatively untested, he thought the killed virus was safer than a traditional “live virus” vaccine because the shot itself couldn’t give someone polio.
In 1953, Salk drew widespread publicity when he injected his own family with the vaccine, part of a limited test on 5,000 people.
The following year, the Salk vaccine was ready for a massive and highly publicized field trial involving nearly 2 million children ages 6 to 9 from every part of the country.
The field trial included about 5,500 second graders from Omaha and Lincoln who received shots in early May 1954.
The results of the study were announced almost a year later, on April 12, 1955 — not coincidentally, the 10th anniversary of Roosevelt’s death. Headlines that day announced the findings: the vaccine was 80-90% effective at preventing paralytic polio. Only one child who received the vaccine died.
“We hope this puts us out of business,” William Sawtell Jr., chairman of Douglas County’s chapter of the March of Dimes, told The World-Herald that day.
The findings cleared the way for full-scale polio immunization, including 60,000 Nebraska children in grades one through four, 18,000 of them in Douglas County.
Vaccine hesitancy wasn’t a thing. Not when it meant protecting children. Even before the announcement, 90% of Omaha parents had signed permission slips allowing their children to receive the Salk vaccine, an Omaha Public Schools official said at the time.
“I don't recall any polio vaccine hesitancy. I recall sheer relief and gratitude,” said Linda Peterson Orr, 72, of Omaha, who received the Salk vaccine as a second-grader. “We trusted medicine and science. It was medical, not political.”
Nell Fuller of Omaha, who grew up in McComb, Mississippi, recalls the children in her school lining up by class and marching to the makeshift vaccination station in the school library. It was a special day.
“Mama let me wear my favorite Sunday dress, black Mary Janes, and lacy white socks," Fuller said in an email. “Public health nurses administered the vaccines, and mothers were present to dry tears and keep order.”
For kids, there was more than a little fear of the needle. Ray Germanproz was a fourth grader growing up in a family of 10 in Topeka, Kansas, when the Salk vaccination campaign opened.
His older brother, who got the shot a day earlier at Topeka’s municipal auditorium, regaled Ray with his description of huge needles, severe pain and nasty nurses.
“Needless to say, the ride on the bus to the auditorium was longer than usual as I contemplated my demise,” recalled Germanproz, who now lives in Omaha, in an email. “Lo and behold, the reusable needles weren't that big, and the nurses were kind."
Rick Nelson walked to the Presbyterian church near his home at 40th Street and Bedford Avenue to get his shot. The line was out the front door. He remembers feeling relief when it was over.
“Once we got the vaccine, the fear went away,” said Nelson, 73, in an email. “After that, it was back to normal. Actually, we were more concerned with the Russians dropping nukes on us."
Salk quickly became America’s most famous and best-loved scientist, though the adulation only briefly dimmed for a time when an improperly prepared batch of the vaccine produced by Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, California, sickened 40,000 people, causing at least 169 cases of paralytic polio and 10 deaths, according to David M. Oshinky's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 history "Polio: An American Story."
The vaccination campaign was paused for nine days so the remaining batches could be tested for safety. Confidence in the Salk vaccine fell. Many health departments refused shipments of the vaccine until the fall of 1955, after the remaining batches had been thoroughly tested. The “Cutter incident” — described by author and vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit as "a man-made polio epidemic" — led the government to boost oversight of vaccine production by private labs.
One man who thought the Salk campaign should be stopped permanently after the Cutter incident was his rival, Albert Sabin.
Sabin was developing his own “live virus” vaccine, an oral version he thought would be better accepted than an immunization given by needle. He also thought a weakened live virus had a proven track record against other diseases and would provide longer immunity. The Cutter incident only reinforced his view.
Salk had beaten Sabin to the punch in 1955. The widespread distribution of the Salk vaccine made it difficult for Sabin to find a test audience for his oral vaccine, which involved a drop or two of liquid placed on a sugar cube or in syrup Sabin called "polio punch."
Two years later, Sabin found an unusual and willing partner: the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 prompted a crack in the Iron Curtain, and Sabin — who had been born in Russia — was invited to visit the USSR.
Successful trials in the USSR in 1959 led to licensing of the Sabin vaccine in the United States in 1961. It quickly became a popular alternative to the Salk vaccine, which unlike Sabin’s required booster shots.
Polio cases in the U.S. already had dropped by more than 90% from the 1952 peak because of the Salk vaccine. But Sabin proved just as adept as his rival at vaccine promotion, turning out enormous crowds for mass immunization events billed as “S.O.S.,” for “Sabin Oral Sundays.”
The campaign reached Omaha on May 27, 1962, the first of three that summer. The local television station KMTV boosted them through live telecasts, with volunteers totting up vaccination counts at each of 60 sites in the area. The tradition would continue for years.
During that first event, 314,000 Douglas and Sarpy County residents turned out to get the vaccine — 85% of the local population.
The turnout earned praise from Dr. Sabin himself.
“So far you have done better in a single Sunday than any other place I have results from,” he told The World-Herald that day.
The children of the era certainly preferred Sabin’s sugar cube to Salk’s needle.
Sabin Oral Sundays hit small towns like Utica, Nebraska, too, where Stan Gierhan was immunized after church.
“I wondered if it was effective, because it was too easy,” Gierhan said in an email. “Those were scary times, seeing children on TV using iron lungs to stay alive. We were thankful for the vaccines.”
Post-polio syndrome: child victims suffer as seniors
The one-two punch of the Salk and Sabin vaccines crushed polio in the United States and, eventually, almost everywhere in the world. The last recorded case in the U.S. was in 1979, and the last in the Americas was in 1994. In the past five years, only Afghanistan and Pakistan have reported “wild” cases of the disease.
The world is all but through with polio, but members of the polio generation haven’t been able to put it behind them.
As the child sufferers became adults, many outgrew their paralysis and shed their crutches and braces. Others just learned to live with their limitations. They worked, they married, they raised children.
Then, 30 or more years after polio laid them low, it struck again. The virus that had lain dormant in their bodies for decades sapped the strength from the same muscles they had struggled so hard to rebuild.
Doctors called it post-polio syndrome. The original bout of polio damaged the nervous system, causing nerves in that area to wither. Some of the nerves would grow back over time, said Allen with the Nebraska Polio Survivors Association, but not strong enough to withstand the stresses of aging.
“It just makes life very, very difficult,” Allen said. “It won’t kill them, but it will make all their mobility issues worse.”
At 69, Debbie Bowman is one the younger polio survivors. She contracted it at age 3, in 1955, before she was able to get the Salk vaccine.
“Just when you think you are doing so well, you start the slow progression of going backwards,” she said. “Whatever part of the body polio attacks, that area will be destroyed.”
Darrel Sudduth, who grew up in Plattsmouth, contracted polio at age 12 during the 1952 epidemic. It left him with one leg shorter than the other, and scoliosis in his spine.
“I didn’t let it stop me as I grew up,” Sudduth said. “The last 25-30 years, my legs have gotten weaker and achy.”
Millie Lil said she did fine until she was in her 40s, when she started to get achy and fell more often.
“Post polio syndrome reared its ugly head,” she said. “I went back into a brace. Now I use a power chair part of the time, more and more as time goes on."
Janet Hall was 18 years old — and seven months pregnant — when she came down with polio in 1952. She lived with her parents in Plainview, Nebraska, because her husband was away in the Army.
She was hospitalized in nearby Osmond for seven weeks and delivered a healthy baby on Veterans Day.
Now 86 and living in Lincoln, post-polio syndrome has caught up with her.
“I began to realize how quickly my muscles would wear out when exerted,” Hall said in an email. “If I overdo it takes me several days to recover.”
The Nebraska Polio Survivors Association, Allen said, was formed in 1984 to help and advocate for people who were suddenly having to cope with polio again in a world that had mostly forgotten about it.
“There aren’t a lot of doctors who know about post-polio, and who will treat it as it is,” she said.
Even with the late-in-life challenges, polio survivors aren’t inclined to complain.
“I can honestly say that I have never heard a polio survivor say ‘poor me,’” said Bowman, whose father and aunt also had polio.
Ann Erisman Kelleher said there’s a certain loss of symmetry between her left and right sides now that she’s in her mid-70s. But she still counts her blessings.
“This is a small price to pay, however, when I consider the poor souls who did not survive the virus, or survivors who were confined to wheelchairs the rest of their lives,” Kelleher said.
COVID hits 'polio generation' with second pandemic
As if post-polio syndrome was not enough, 2020 came along to toss a few more lemons at the polio generation, thanks to COVID-19.
Nearly every polio survivor is part of the over-65 group at highest risk for contracting or dying of COVID-19. Many consider themselves lucky to have lived to see a vaccine developed for the latest viral plague.
The human toll of polio was enormous. But COVID-19 has killed 577,000 people people in the United States in just over a year — more than died of polio in the entire 20th century.
Allen said interest in COVID-19 has been keen among the members of her Nebraska Polio Survivors group.
“They could see some real parallels there — the quarantine aspect, the fear factor, not knowing who is infected,” she said.
The group switched from in-person to online meetings a year ago, and attendance has boomed. Allen said she has zoomed in guest speakers who can talk about COVID-19, and its risks to polio survivors.
“They were really concerned that the vaccine would be developed, and that people would adopt it,” she said.
It’s a small comfort that there is no evidence that polio elevates survivors’ risk above other senior citizens.
"I’m listening to what the doctors and scientists say,” said Sudduth, adding that he is now fully vaccinated against COVID. “I’m 81 years old, so I’m social-distancing, wearing a mask and not going out unless I absolutely need to.”
Kathleen Gillies Brown, now 80, said her experience with polio has guided her thoughts on the COVID crisis.
“I have been pretty patient through COVID-19 because I don’t want others to go through anything close to what I went through at 6 years of age,” she said. “It isn’t worth contracting or passing along the virus because one thinks it isn’t really important. Believe me, it is important."
Cecilia Losee, an Omaha financial planner who grew up in Bolivia, is one of the unlucky few who caught polio in 1965 even after being vaccinated. She received years of treatment in Argentina and the United States. All these years later, she still uses a wheelchair.
“I am more blessed than I deserve,” she said.
She wears a mask and washes her hands.
“(Viruses) only care about feeding, reproducing and mutating to stay alive,” she said in an email. “I got the vaccines as soon as they became available because, frankly, being paralyzed is ever so much better than being dead.”
When Susan Tongier Wolfe, 72, an Omaha pharmacist, got her COVID shots, she couldn’t help but think of her big brother, Jody.
Polio struck him in 1956, at age 12.
Jody was in an iron lung for a year. The disease cost him the use of his legs and most use of his arms. He often struggled to breathe.
Jody couldn’t attend high school regularly or take notes, but he listened to classes through a radio-like box. Still, he was at the top of his class and a National Merit Scholarship finalist.
But, Wolfe said, he never finished high school. He died of heart failure in 1961, at 17.
The vaccine might have saved him. So her patience is thin with those who don’t want the COVID shot.
“The science today is much more advanced and the vaccines safer than they were in the 1950s. We lined up and, heaven forbid, waited in that line for the polio vaccine,” Wolfe said in an email. “So stop whining and get the shot — if not for you, then for those you might be saving."
World-Herald librarian Sheritha Jones contributed to this story