SIDNEY — While responses to COVID-19 in America have often been compared with the Spanish flu of 1918, many Americans remember the polio virus epidemic that reached its peak in the early 1950s.
“August was always a scary time when I was growing up,” polio survivor Patricia Heckler said of the summer of 1942 when she contracted the disease when she was 5 years old.
Polio, or poliomyelitis, which no cure, is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus spreads from person to person and can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis. The polio vaccine, developed in the 1950s, is the only protection against polio. By 1979, the United States was polio free.
Heckler and Joyce Vance, both of Sidney, are two polio survivors who experienced very different symptoms from the virus. Heckler experienced temporary paralysis of her legs. Vance struggled to breathe and could not swallow at all for a period of time. Both fully recovered.
The CDC says globally, between 2 and 10 out of 100 people who have paralysis from poliovirus infection die, because the virus affects the muscles that help them breathe. Most people who get infected with poliovirus (about 72 out of 100, globally) will not have any visible symptoms, according to the CDC. About one out of four people with the infection will have flu-like symptoms that may include a sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea, headache or stomach pain. These symptoms usually last two to five days, then go away on their own.
A smaller proportion of people with poliovirus infection will develop other, more serious symptoms that affect the brain and spinal cord such as paresthesia, feeling of pins and needles in the legs; or meningitis, an infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain, which occurs in about 1 out of 25 people with the poliovirus infection.
Paralysis, in which an individual can’t move parts of their body, or weakness in the arms, legs, or both, occurs in about 1 out of 200 people with poliovirus infection.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988, with CDC as a leading member. Substantial progress has been made in recent years, and only three countries remain where polio has never been stopped: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
When Heckler contracted polio, she said it was thought that mostly children were infected with the virus, as it was often referred to as “infantile paralysis.”
“My mother and I had been at the Lazarus store at Town and High Streets in Columbus,” Heckler recalled of the story her mother told her when she was older. “We were waiting to get the bus home and I told Mother I couldn’t stand up or walk and I sat down on the curb.”
Her mother immediately thought she had infantile paralysis. Heckler only remembers being at her paternal grandmother’s home after her legs became paralyzed.
“My mother was pregnant and expecting the birth of my brother, who born on Aug. 16, 1942,” she said. “I had to wait a long time before I was able to see the baby. I think I was there the whole time my mother was in the hospital, which was probably a couple of weeks. — At that time women were kept in the hospital up to about 10 days. I remember being carried up and down the stairs at my grandmother’s.”
After Heckler returned home, she saw a doctor “every so often and had to take a some kind of medicine,” but doesn’t know what kind.
“I think I had a pretty mild case. I remember trying to walk and someone would have to hold on to me,” she said of her recovery process. “I think I was starting to move around then, I would say within a couple of months.”
Her mother “never made a fuss about it” and thinks they likely tried to keep it hush-hush from others. Heckler recovered and was able to start school in the first-grade, as kindergarten was not mandatory at that time. She did not experience post-polio syndrome.
The CDC says even children who seem to fully recover can develop new muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis as adults, 15 to 40 years later, called post-polio syndrome.
“I did not have any residual infirmities but my little toes were crooked and overlapped the other toes,” Heckler said.
Vance was 15 years old in 1953 when she contracted Bulbar polio. She did not know much about polio at that time, so at first she wasn’t scared. Bulbar polio causes weakening of muscles making it difficult to swallow and secretions of mucus may build up in the airway, causing suffocation.
It is likely she contracted the virus from an in-law family member of a family member. Vance first noticed something was wrong after coming home from the fair and assumed she was getting the flu. After being seen twice at home by her doctor, and then being admitted to Wilson Health (formerly Wilson Memorial Hospital), Vance was eventually sent to Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton. There she was put into an oxygen tent to help her breathe. They only treated the symptoms and tried to make her more comfortable.
“They put me in an oxygen tent — I think the nurses thought I was unconscious — and they said, ‘She will never make it through the night.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, yes I will! I’m gonna survive for my dad,’” Vance said. Her father was newly widowed and had recently gone through other personal tragedies as well.
Vance was in the hospital for about 10 days, where the foot of her bed was raised about 12 inches to prevent her saliva from choking her. She had a suction tube next to her bed for personal use to remove extra saliva and phlegm. One day she was suddenly able to swallow and shortly after released. It was a great relief, she said.
Vance was then moved to the Barney Center, a recovery center, which later became Dayton Children’s Hospital. She missed the fall semester of her sophomore year but was able to return the following January.
At times over the years, she has experienced bouts of choking, which she assumes is considered post-polio syndrome.
A lot of people came out of it (having polio). Very few came out of having the Bulbar polio, which is what I had,” Vance said.
Heckler noted that it is another scary time in the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Both she and Vance, and their husbands, are grateful to have family bring food and help with needs.
For up to date information on COVID-19, visit the Ohio Department of Health’s website dedicated to virus at https://coronavirus.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/covid-19/home
Reach the writer at 937-538-4823.