We are used to new habits and rituals – until medical breakthroughs emerge and change everything.
It began when I took Washington Post magazine on Sunday recently. That cover story caught my attention – the story of a daughter about her relationship with her mother, whose childhood with polio will affect the rest of her life. Polio felt distant memories, but when I read the story, I remembered things that I hadn’t thought of in decades.
When a child grows up on the coast of Jersey in the late 40s and early 50s, when polio spreads at epidemic rates, I see fear that grips parents and children, especially in warm summers when the virus actually takes holding on. No more family gatherings on Lake Lenape (calm waters are considered a breeding ground for polio); Careful get-together with playmates – and whisper among adults about children they know who have the disease, always with a sense of relief that, for now, their own children have survived. My mother’s safe zone is on the beach and in the ocean. He would pack my sister and I almost every day, spy out places away from other families, and place his faith in the ability of the sea breeze and the waves to prevent viruses.
This has been going on for years, changing our lifestyle. We still go to school. The arrival of autumn means there is a pause from the spread of the virus, which attacks the central nervous system, mostly children, and causes mild and paralyzing paralysis and sometimes death. As time went by, we began to receive threats that were always there, avoiding known dangers and hoping that they would not be overtaken. There is a constant reminder of what can happen to us: horrific photographs of children who have to live in iron lungs, footrests that I see in those who are less fortunate than me. Then, in 1955, Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine. My mother took me to our family doctor at lightning speed, saying it was one of the happiest days of her life.
After I finish reading Post magazine, I gave it to my husband Carl. He told me about his own memory of the “fear of polio,” growing up in 13th place northeast of Washington D.C., not far from Franciscan Abbey. He remembers the summer days when he would come out of his family’s chawl, looking for children with bicycles or rollerblading, maybe one or two friends to walk to the nearest school or monastery for a day of adventure. Instead, he will find streets that are almost empty. One summer day, her mother broke news about her playmate who was stricken with illness and died.
I also had the opportunity to chat with my friend Barbara. I have known him for years, we are part of a special lunch group that often spends three or four hours discussing everything from books to traveling to world events, family and grandchildren. When I mentioned the article to him, he said he had read it with interest because … he suffered from polio when he was six years old. How is it possible, I ask, that he never mentioned this? “I didn’t think too much about it,” he said, “but the article made me ponder – the article gave me permission to realize that this, in fact, is a very big problem.”
Barbara had spent the past few days thinking about the sudden onset of illness during the summer between grades one and two, riding in an ambulance, leaning on one elbow to look at the pictures in the book her mother had read to her along the way, unable to sit as they reach the hospital because paralysis spreads quickly. He spent six weeks in the hospital ward with rows of other children with polio, unable to see his parents except for a short visit every Sunday. He remembers the treatment of a whirlpool tub and the smell of hot packs placed on his limbs to prevent paralysis from spreading. It must have worked, he said, because in six weeks he could be discharged from the hospital. However, he hadn’t thought about it too much. In fact, he is not sure his grown children know that this has happened to him. It was just something he had set internally, he said, an unconscious decision not to hold because it was too scary.
I was struck by these memories that we at a certain age always take us along, at other times when we practice “keeping a social distance” and stay close to home, trying to avoid scary diseases. Some of us are lucky, some of us are not. One of my younger friends observed irony for my generation: We were the target group for polio when we were very young and we are now in the cross line of the corona virus, the most risky American group.
Today’s viruses are far less discriminating when it comes to the target group, and it will be with us for some time. I realize now that the lesson I learned many years ago has come into play once again, when I watch carefully and learn to accommodate the presence of the virus until another magical vaccine is found. When that day comes, I will be reminded, again, of the gift Jonas Salk gave us long ago. For the sake of all of us now, across generations, for all those who are waiting to embrace their family and friends and return to their lives, I hope that day will come soon.
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