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 Post subject: living with polio
PostPosted: Wed Aug 09, 2017 8:58 pm 
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I couldn’t figure out the cover picture at first. A cute little girl is looking out a window. A woman is reading to her – Alice in Wonderland. Something about the perspective didn’t seem right, though. It took me the longest time to realize what I was seeing was not a girl looking out a window, but a girl’s reflection in a mirror; the mirror is at a 45° angle to the viewer; the little girl is lying on her back below the mirror. But all you can see is her head, because the rest of her is in an iron lung.
Author Daniel J. Wilson is a history professor; this is a work of human history, not history of science or medicine. There isn’t much about how the poliomyelitis virus works, how you contract it (except that it is “contagious”), or details of what it does. I did learn that better than 90% of the people who contracted “polio” had no permanent effects and probably never realized they had polio – just what must have seemed like a summer cold or a food-borne illness. I also learned that it is almost entirely a 20th century disease – the first documented epidemic was in Vermont in 1894 (Wilson doesn’t speculate, but I assume there was polio around before, but just isolated cases rather than epidemics, and most of the cases just disappeared into the abyss of pre-modern medicine as just another unexplained way a child could die).
For the unlucky 10% things were a lot worse than a summer cold of food-borne illness. The patient was usually prostrated by pain and fever, so it was the parents (it was primarily a disease of the young) who learned the diagnosis, after a spinal tap. In the really severe cases it could kill in hours, in the severe it paralyzed the lungs, in the merely bad it went after the legs. Most of the patients Wilson quotes had the disease in the last great outbreak in the early 1950s; the United States was quite a different place then and there was sometimes an attitude that illness was some sort of personal failing. The young victims moaned apologies to their parents or their God for whatever it was they had done to deserve what was happening to them as they lost their muscles one by one.

Rehabilitation started after the “crisis” was over, and Wilson notes repeatedly that the American work ethic was well in evidence; if you worked hard enough you would be rewarded. Often the work really was hard; therapists stretched muscles to keep them from withering in position, the process was torture-chamber painful, and the only relief offered was aspirin. But sometimes – often - hard work actually did pay off, people could learn to use different muscle groups to do things, and walking with crutches or breathing without an iron lung were possible. Maybe awkward and uncomfortable, but possible.
There was no ADA in the 1950s, so a “recovered” polio patient going back to school or a job had to learn to climb stairs and negotiate other obstacles. Lots faced social difficulties – neighbors brought their own children inside when a girl with a leg brace went outside, and one went so far as to confront her parents for letting someone like that appear in public. A man who finally got a job was fired the day after people from headquarters visited – they didn’t want any cripples in their company. Once again persistence often paid off, and most of Wilson’s subjects finished school and found jobs (Including the author; he is a polio survivor himself, although he never mentions how severe his case was).
These are oral histories, though, not a scientific review. Wilson’s subjects are a self-selected group; they are obviously the people who didn’t give up, who finished school, who found jobs, who didn’t let polio beat them. We don’t hear the stories of the people who surrendered and died, and there undoubtedly were many.
I have a very dim memory of the 1950s epidemic; I was four years old when the Salk vaccine came out. The thing I remember most clearly is that I was promised a “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” play set (This one, I think) if I could make it through the whole series of shots without crying. I lost it at the last one and never got Davy Crockett.

It wouldn’t do any good to make this required reading for antivaxxers; they would just dismiss it as propaganda from Big Pharma or accuse Wilson of being a shill. About all we can hope for is natural selection takes care of them.
Excellent book, within the constraints of way the subject is handled; I think I want another book that takes up the medical, epidemiological and biological aspects to complement this one. Well indexed and referenced; the bibliography includes a lot full length books by the people Wilson interviewed. Illustrations of people in braces, wheelchairs, and iron lungs.


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 Post subject: Re: living with polio
PostPosted: Thu Aug 10, 2017 12:41 am 
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Jeff Davis, Houston's charity hospital. This was Baylor's main teaching hospital during the early 50's. The two story building included the polio ward with all of the iron lungs. I hated walking down that corridor. The seven story building was the nurses home.
https://www.facebook.com/JeffDavisHospi ... =1&theater
Louis J Rosner, polio victim was probably the smartest student in my medical school class. He was also the most eccentric. He devoted his final years to the study of the medical benefits of marijuana. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shelley-r ... 71755.html


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 Post subject: Re: living with polio
PostPosted: Thu Aug 10, 2017 6:27 am 
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Location: South Carolina
Hmph. Anti-vaxxers would just say it's only 10% who were affected, so what? They point to a Brady Bunch episode where the kids get measles (or was it chicken pox?) and say, see, no big deal. Summer cold.

I wanted to learn to swim. My mother was deathly afraid of me going to a public pool because that's how polio was transmitted, according to her, probably correctly, though by the 1950s pools were being sanitized with chlorine, which is effective against polio. What made her change her mind was my nearly drowning in my aunt's little above-ground pool.

I didn't mind shots too much as a kid, so the only reward I ever got for taking them was the sugar cube they squirted the vaccine onto. Meh. :P

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(BTW, I'm on Facebook, so friend me, already - since it's just us here, the name is Ceridwen Keeley.)


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 Post subject: Re: living with polio
PostPosted: Thu Aug 10, 2017 2:30 pm 
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I've known three polio victims. One was a physics professor at BYU who was a marvelous teacher, except that it could be slightly distracting when his left hand came loose from the pocket where he habitually stuffed it and the limp limb flopped around as he moved, until he noticed and stuffed his hand back. Curiously, he seemed to have some slight movement in the fingers, but not the rest of the arm.

The second was an educator I shook hands with after hearing him speak to a church group. His handshake was remarkably soft; only later did I learn that he had post-polio syndrome in his hands.

The third is the wife of a close friend, who could walk (with some difficulty) most of her life, but later required a cane and finally became wheelchair-bound from post-polio syndrome.

She caught polio six months before the Salk vaccine came out. I have very little patience with antivaxxers.


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 Post subject: Re: living with polio
PostPosted: Fri Aug 11, 2017 12:40 pm 
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I have read that the polio wards at Jeff Davis were the precursor to the intensive care units now common in hospitals.


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