A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Worry Over Polio

Photo courtesy of http://onceuponawin.wordpress.com/vote/page/42/
It was a mysterious, lurking threat each summer.  Something in the air, on the drinking fountain perhaps, unseen but very, very real.  Polio.  We knew people who had been victimized by it.  Friends from school, or church, forced to wear heavy metal braces on their legs and walk with crutches.  We'd heard stories of something called an Iron Lung, a horrific-sounding contraption that kept the most seriously damaged polio victims alive.  Polio was an unseen enemy that to us was a constant source of fear.

Once we thought it had found my sister Janet.  We were about five years old, and Janet had been reduced from her normal active, playful state to a state of lethargy, spending days just lying down on the green couch in the living room.  Doctor Wright was summoned, and he too was fearful that we were seeing the symptoms of polio.  But after a few days Janet perked back up, and we found out that she just had an ear infection.  (Dr. Wright years later diagnosed a less-than-perky Janet as suffering from "Droopy Faced Virus"). 

In Kansas City, Missouri, a similar thing happened to four year old Marilyn Ferguson.  She and her parents had been to the rodeo, and when they returned home, little Marilyn couldn't turn her neck.  When they saw the doctor the next day, he said he didn't know for sure what it was, but he couldn't rule out polio.  He told Marilyn's mom to wrap warm, moist towels around her neck until they could find out exactly what was going on.  But, on the day she was to see the pediatrician, she decided she wanted to go out in the yard and look at her swing set.  By the time she came back inside, her neck was fine and no trip to the pediatrician was required.

But by the time I was aware of polio in the early 1960's, the disease was actually not the threat that we perceived it to be.  In the late 1950's, Jonas Salk has developed an injected vaccine for the disease, and a few years later Albert Sabin and others had developed an oral vaccine.  Between the years of 1962 and 1965, roughly 56% of the population of the United States had been vaccinated against the disease, and happily, I was a part of that 56%.

Getting the polio vaccine was easier and less scary than about any other thing you could do that involved seeing a doctor or nurse.  My experiences visiting the Scott County Health Office, on the second floor of the old courthouse, were usually less than pleasant.  I have a vivid memory of ascending the old wooden staircase, and upon making the landing between the first and second floors, evidently completely conking out, which required Mrs. Galloway, the County Health Nurse, to come down and revive me with smelling salts.  And they worked; I still remember the sensation of coming back to my senses when the powerful, acrid aroma hit my brain cells.  In spite of my many misadventures and occasional clumsiness, that's the only time in my 55 years that I have required the use of smelling salts.

But the polio vaccine was nothing like that.  It consisted of a couple of drops of vaccine, concealed in a little cup of Kool-Aid or dropped onto a cube of sugar.  I believe that we had three different vaccinations, over a period of several months.  The first one was administered at the High School, which seemed quite an elaborate locale for someone who had never before ventured past Waldron Elementary.  We stood in a long line, slowly advancing toward a table that seemed to offer some type of refreshment.  When we finally got to the table, we were issued a tiny Dixie cup full of what appeared to be Kool-Aid; and indeed it tasted like Kool-Aid when we drank it down.  On a subsequent visit for another dose of vaccine, I recall that we got at that time a little sugar cube in another small Dixie cup.  I was a bit leery this time; I loved sweets but I'd never actually had an entire sugar cube to myself.  In fact, I'd never even seen a sugar cube before; the Yates family was strongly committed to the Granulated Sugar school of thought.  I don't remember in which form the third dose was administered; but I do remember that whatever it was, they were running short of the vaccine and some had to be delivered to our location by HELICOPTER!  There was word out among the crowd that a helicopter would soon be arriving, an apparition that absolutely none of my classmates had ever seen.  But when it landed, none of us saw it, but we definitely heard it.  I don't know where it landed, but it was somewhere safely away from the crowd.  So, the needed vaccine arrived safely, and we all got our final dose of protection against the feared enemy.
The polio vaccine distributed via sugar cube, circa 1961.
Photo courtesy of http://www.sv40foundation.org/

Thankfully, today, polio is almost unheard of.  The years of effective vaccinations have almost eradicated it from the face of the earth.  And I've visited enough doctors over the years that I can now make it through the office door without needing smelling salts...

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