I have only recently talked about this fact: I had polio when I was 12. Everyone looks at me strangely when I say this, like I’m a dinosaur. No one gets polio anymore. But they did when I was young. I was one of the first to get an experimental vaccine, which my parents worked hard to get for me. Unfortunately, I think I was in the control group.
One morning while I was dressing, I noticed that I had trouble bending down to tie my shoes and I had to force hard to get my chin to my chest. I told my Mom, but knowing that I had gotten a vaccine, she didn’t pay much attention. A couple of days later, I told her I COULDN’T tie my shoes. By that time, the word was out. The beach club where I swam and played tennis was closed because a number of the children had come down with the bulbar form of polio and were in iron lungs at our local hospital. Iron lungs were big machines that breathed for people whose diaphragm and rib muscles had been paralyzed by the polio virus.
My mother had our family doctor come to the house to examine me (yes, they made house calls in those days!). I wasn’t part of the conversation, but Dr. Spelman said since I was still breathing well, he considered I had a light case and could recover at home. Recovery involved basically what I like to call TOT – Tincture of Time. There was nothing else that could be done.
What this meant is that I was confined to bed until Dr. Spelman determined I could resume a normal life. That meant moving across the hall into the guest room, which was large, and had wonderful views of the ocean and a large bed. It also meant a bed pan; no getting out of bed. I was to lie flat and still. I had a radio for entertainment and piles and piles of books: Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Sue Barton, and anything else my parents brought me from the library. Luckily I was already a voracious reader, but it was lonely during the day. My parents hired a young woman from the Boston area to take care of my brother while they worked and they were gone morning and afternoon. Dad came in to gave me a massage every night to ensure my muscles remained supple.
About six weeks later, I was allowed downstairs for the first time, but Dad had to carry me because I couldn’t walk. My muscles were too weak. But being young meant a fast recovery and for years, I played every sport under the sun, enjoying all the activity. Unfortunately, polio is a disease that keeps on giving.
As I understand it, this is what happens: A motor unit is formed by a nerve cell (or motor neuron) in the spinal cord or brain stem and the muscle fibers it activates. The polio virus attacks these specific neurons in the brain stem and spinal cord. In an effort to compensate for the loss of these motor neurons, surviving cells sprout new nerve-end terminals and connect with other muscle fibers. These new connections may result in recovery of movement and gradual gain in power in the affected limbs. Years of high use of these recovered but overly extended motor units adds stress to the motor neurons, which over time lose the ability to maintain the increased work demands. This results in the slow deterioration of the neurons, which leads to loss of muscle strength.
And this is happening to me. You can’t exercise your way back to strength, you just exercise to keep yourself going. There is no treatment, no drug, no magic bullet.
I was lucky. I could have been in an iron lung. A colleague of mine who had also had polio as a youngster, walked with two canes and couldn’t stand up for long periods of time for as long as I knew him. I am still fairly active, even though long hikes and extreme exercise is no longer possible. I was lucky, but yes, I’m a dinosaur.