Polio Summer

In the United States, the 1952 polio epidemic would be the worst outbreak in the nation’s history, and is credited with heightening parents’ fears of the disease and focusing public awareness on the need for a vaccine.[20] Of the 57,628 cases reported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. — Wikipedia

Most of those polio victims were children. I can’t attest to the accuracy of these numbers, although they are documented. But I can attest to the fear.

I was reminded of it when I read an article the other day about Mark O’Brien, a poet who was stricken with polio at age six and confined to an iron lung for the rest of his life. He died at 49. (His story inspired the movie, The Sessions.) As I read, the memory of a particular summer in our small town came flooding back. I’m not sure it was 1952. It may have been a different year, but it was our personal summer of terror and dread.

It was probably a typical Mississippi summer–the smothering heat, the mimosas in bloom, the late afternoon thunderstorms that didn’t cool things off but made steam rise from the pavement, the attic fan that barely stirred the hot air inside the house.

Ordinary, until children started becoming ill at an alarming rate.

As panic spread, my parents kept me out of crowds and away from swimming pools. My best friend’s younger sister and brother came down with severe cases. My friend did not. Her sister was transferred to a Vicksburg hospital, designated a regional pediatric polio center, where she would receive more treatment and therapy. Just as many other children did, that little girl spent weeks there, far from home. She would have been about five years old. What must that have been like for her? What was it like for her mother and dad, to be separated from her?

Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I had other sick friends, too, and there was little anyone could do to help. My mother suggested I share some books with a friend who had a fairly mild case of polio but still faced a long recovery. So I gathered books, and one of my parents delivered them (whoever took them would not have entered the house). I didn’t know my books wouldn’t be returned. They were burned.

The worst case, the one that affected all of us more than any other, was a young boy so severely ill that he required an iron lung. I remember our prayers for him at school and in church. I remember the day the teacher told us he had died. In my memory, it was September; we were back in school, and I was sitting in art class. Dead? My reaction was selfish. I was terrified. A child could die? Old people died, not children.

I didn’t get sick that summer. My friends got well, eventually. My best friend’s sister was left with scoliosis that would plague her for the rest of her life. None of us would ever be the same. Whether we were directly touched by polio or not, we learned some hard lessons: that our parents, no matter how good they were or how strong or how faithful, no matter how much they loved us and cared for us, couldn’t always protect us from harm. That our bodies were frail. That disease and death were real and close, lurking in the innocence of a shared sip, a touch, the water in a swimming pool.

In 1955 the Salk vaccine was introduced. A godsend, but it was too late for many.

Thinking about that long summer has been interesting. I’m surprised by the details I remember, like the burned books. The memory of the fear is so real it’s almost visceral. I’m surprised, too, by the things I feel I’m recalling incorrectly. (Was the child who died a boy, or was it really a girl? I can’t say for sure.)

Memory is a slippery thing. It warps our stories and makes liars of us, even when we’re trying our best to tell the truth.

Do you have a memory that eludes you, that’s difficult to recall truthfully? How do you feel about the fictions our minds create about the past?