Editor’s note: This is a riveting and eye-opening account from someone who survived polio, but what the writer endured as a 5-year-old is heart wrenching. He hopes that no child will suffer from this or any other disease that can be eradicated.
By Dwight Pierson
Former PUSD trustee
It was early September 1949 and my Iowa farm family was taking a rare vacation to visit relatives in California. This was an exciting time for a 5-year-old. I could hardly sleep that night knowing the next morning we would pack the car and head West. I was up early the day we were to leave.
It was when I started going down the stairway when my legs gave out on me, and I tumbled down the stairway. My mother heard the commotion and rushed to see if I was all right. It was then she realized I was not injured but felt very warm and she found I had an extremely high fever. My parents immediately drove me to our nearest hospital where they examined me and my parents were advised to take me to Children’s Hospital at Omaha, Nebraska. It was at that hospital the doctors told my parents that I had polio.
In the 1950s, polio was a disease that was running rampant throughout the world and causing the stunting of bone growth and disfigurement, part or permanent paralysis, or death.
For the next six months, I was paralyzed from my neck down. Nurses dressed in white and gray uniforms and always wearing masks, attended to my every need. I often felt they were my guardian angels. More importantly, they cared for me and instilled hope in me to survive this disease. I was in a ward with 30 plus other children. One of my desires was to have my bed near the windows at the end of the ward. I finally was moved to the window, but only because others in the ward were no longer with us. At one point, they rolled me in my bed to a special ward so that I could visit children and adults who were in iron lungs.
After six months of paralysis, feeling starting coming back to my extremities. By the end of February, a decision was made to send me home. For eight months at Children’s Hospital, I had no contact with my family. It was a glorious day to be back home on the farm.
For the next three years my parents performed physical therapy on me on the kitchen table every evening for two or three hours. In April, I was healthy enough to return to school but with some genuine concern about my presence in school from parents of children in the school system. Fortunately for me, my classmates and their parents supported the school district’s decision to allow me to return to school. It should be noted that the parents’ concerns were justified because of the nation’s fear of polio.
Then the miracle happened. A vaccine was found to combat the polio virus. The following school year all students were vaccinated. There was hope that no child should ever have to suffer or die from this dreaded disease which had become our new reality.
I did experience some lasting side effects of polio. My left leg was 1 ½ inches shorter than my right leg and my overall growth was stunted. It took me several years of extensive physical therapy to be able to walk and slowly be able run. In high school, I played all sports and was a distance runner, but I wobbled when I ran. Some found it comical, but it was not intended to be funny.
Later in my life after years of long distance running, my left hip had to be replaced because of the unevenness of my legs. My surgeon made sure that the length of my legs was the same when installing the new hip joint. It came to be known then that many people who had polio had to worry about the reoccurrence of symptoms later in their lives which included paralysis and respiratory complications. To date, I have not experienced any of these complications.
With the support of the Gates Foundation and Rotary International, polio has been wiped off the face of the earth. Only one nation, Afghanistan, reported polio last year.
Today, the world faces another pandemic – COVID-19. As the pandemic worsened, people were asked to practice social distancing, wear masks, and wash their hands. Once again through the heroic efforts of scientists, a vaccine was developed.
Through unbelievable efforts of so many people, the vaccine at first was offered to the most vulnerable and then to the general population at no cost. There was no mandate to get vaccinated, but the new vaccine gave hope that once everyone took advantage of being vaccinated and we could all could return to some type of normalcy in our daily lives. During the months it took for everyone to get vaccinated, we were all asked to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Though I was one of the first to receive the Moderna vaccine, I continued to wear my mask and practice social distancing because like polio I did not want anyone to become ill with COVID-19. For people my age, we continue to worry about our children and especially our grandchildren who are not old enough to get vaccinated.
So, why is the task of wearing masks or getting vaccinated so difficult for some? This wasn’t a problem when the polio vaccine was offered. Why has protecting each other and our children from COVID-19 become so political? Why the anger and hostility toward being asked to wear a mask?
The other issue in combating COVID-19 is people stating they have a right not to wear a mask or be vaccinated. I contend that these same people have a responsibility to protect all of us from additional exposure to the COVID-19 virus. In my career as an educator and a school administrator for 30 years, I often had parents or children stating that they had rights. That is true, but I immediately shared with them that with every right there is also a responsibility. Yes, one can drive as fast as they want, but if caught speeding they will likely get a ticket. One has the right to not pay their taxes but runs the risk of paying penalties. Any list of rights almost always has a corresponding list of responsibilities.
I will continue to do whatever possible to protect my family, my neighbors and my community from getting COVID-19, but there is growing frustration with those who opted not to get vaccinated and how they have added additional stress on those serving us with our health care needs. Need I mention COVID-19 has impacted our school system?
Maybe it is time to focus more on “us” rather than rather than “me” when it comes to addressing this pandemic that has caused so much pain and suffering in America. If we all do our part, we can return to traveling, have family gatherings, attend sports and other entertainment programs, and send our kids to school without worry of getting COVID-19. Furthermore, the vaccine is free and has proven to be highly effective in reducing one’s chances of hospitalization or death because of the virus.
It is my hope that we put an end to this deadly virus, it will be through a community effort based on genuine concern for all.