Readers respond with their own polio memories

Two readers responded to my recent column on polio with very different — yet somehow connected —stories of their own, plus permission for me to share them. One is frightening, the other enlightening. Let’s be grateful for them both.
Roy Edenson shares his “vivid memories” of August 1953, when, at age 4, he suddenly couldn’t swallow the ice cream his father was feeding him from a Dixie cup with a wooden spoon. A quick trip to the doctor was followed by immediate admission to the local polio hospital. Roy had the bulbar strain, which affects swallowing and breathing. For weeks he was in an oxygen tent with an iron lung; raw eggs and milk were fed through a rubber hose threaded from his nose down to his stomach. Many “get-well” gifts included an RCA portable record player, which Roy credits with inspiring his engineering/electronics career.
During Roy’s recovery, his microbiologist father learned about the Salk trials; when the vaccine was finally approved, he took a part-time job as health officer in East Brunswick, New Jersey, organizing clinics to vaccinate children free of charge.
“I learned how lucky I was to have an aware parent who saved me from certain death with his early intervention,” says Roy, who was largely unaffected for 50 years afterward. But now, he calls polio “the gift that keeps on taking.”
About 20 years ago, his overworked neurons started weakening and dying, causing fatigue, muscle weakness and pain that finally necessitated back and neck surgeries. But hand, finger and leg problems continue to escalate. Still, Roy says, “I often remind myself of the 65 extra years I was gifted. Our eldest daughter gave birth to identical twin girls on the first anniversary of my initial back surgery, and our only grandson was born six weeks early – on the same day as my neck surgery. Life is what happens.”
Eleanor Eidels tells of her strikingly different involvement with polio, which also illustrates the early preventive efforts of that fear-filled time.
“As a third-grader in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, I was one of many kids in the field trial for the Salk vaccine,” she recalls. Testing involved three shots, so “Three times, virtually all the first-, second- and third-graders in my school were lined up to go through the high school cafeteria, where dozens of tables were set up with doctors and nurses ready to give the vaccine.” Since one of the girls always fainted when she got shots, the other kids would warn them in advance. “Sure enough, that girl became a physician,” Eleanor comments today.
She continues: “One of the cool things was that they taught us kids what a ‘double-blind’ study is, so we all understood that not even the doctors knew who was getting the real vaccine. It wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that they revealed who got what. Fortunately, I had received the actual vaccine, though they decided to give us a booster shot. The poor kids who got the dummy shots had to go through the whole series again.”
But: “It was such a big deal because polio was a terror. A girl in my grade needed braces on both legs. A little boy down the street from me got polio one summer. Why not his brother? Why not me? He ended up with a brace on one leg. A couple of streets over was a boy in an iron lung. We were not allowed to drink from the water fountain at the playground.”
Eleanor concludes: “I still have the card that proclaims me a ‘Polio Pioneer’ — signed by me, Eleanor Royster, in third grade. And to this day, I still never let my face touch any part of a water fountain, a habit drilled into me in those awful years.”
(Postscript: 56 years ago, July 29, 1962, almost a million Dallas children received the Sabin sugar cube, replacing the Salk shots as protection against polio.)

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