When Polio Was Personal

I’ll never forget my first day of kindergarten. A week before school started, I broke my leg. With a cast on my leg and with the help of crutches, I limped into class and became an instant curiosity/celebrity. All the other kids asked me about the cast and how I broke my leg. (A bigger kid on a bicycle accidentally ran me over while we were playing on the sidewalk outside his house.)

Another kid in my kindergarten class also arrived on crutches on the first day, only he had polio. Instead of a cast, he wore big, heavy metal braces on both of his skinny legs. Like me, he became an instant curiosity/celebrity, so the two of us naturally became friends, with one big difference: When my cast came off six weeks later, I walked fine. My friend never walked right.

At the time, in the 1950s, polio struck fear in the hearts of nearly everyone. A woman on our block – a friend of my mom’s and about my mom’s age –had polio and was confined to an iron lung respirator. An iron lung looks like a huge, metal cylinder attached to a gurney, and it kept people with severe polio alive by aiding their weakened muscles so they could breathe. My mom’s friend didn’t get many visitors, especially kids, because everyone was scared they might contract the dreaded disease. My mom, perhaps because she worked in a doctor’s office and understood the then-new polio vaccine or because this woman was her friend, never exhibited those fears, and she used to take me and my sister to visit her friend in the iron lung. From a five-year-old’s perspective, it was fascinating.

The woman in the iron lung was always flat on her back, with just her head sticking out of the huge cylinder. A mirror placed just above her head and angled just right allowed my sister and I to see her face … and for her to see us as we chatted. We would ask a bunch of dumb questions, and she would answer in a pleasant, if labored, voice, and then she would ask us about school, our pet dog and stuff like that.

Like all of our friends, my sister and I received polio vaccine shots, and our grammar school gave every kid medicated pink sugar cubes to “booster” the polio vaccine. It must have worked because I don’t recall any of my other classmates or anyone I knew getting polio after that.

I haven’t thought much about polio since then. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the last confirmed case of polio in the United States occurred more than 35 years ago. I thought polio had been wiped off the face of the Earth. I thought wrong.

It turns out that the polio virus is still active in a handful of countries, notably pockets of Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria, and as recently as May, the World Health Organization imposed restrictions requiring travelers leaving those countries to get a polio vaccination. Ironically, just a month earlier at the INFORMS Conference on Analytics & Operations Research in Boston, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received the coveted Edelman Award for its ongoing and optimized efforts to eradicate polio from the planet once and for all. For more on the story, click here.

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