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What Living Through the Polio Epidemic Taught Me About COVID-19

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We get used to new habits and new rituals—until a medical breakthrough comes along and changes everything.

It began when I picked up the Washington Post magazine on a recent Sunday. The cover story caught my eye—a daughter’s haunting tale of her relationship with her mother, whose childhood bout with polio would affect the rest of her life. Polio feels a distant memory, but as I read the story, I recalled things I hadn’t thought about for decades.

As a child growing up on the Jersey shore in the late 40s and early 50s, at a time when polio was spreading at epidemic levels, I saw the fear that gripped parents and children alike, especially in the warm summer months when the virus really took hold. No more family gatherings at Lake Lenape (still waters were thought to be breeding grounds for polio); cautious get-togethers with playmates—and whispers among the grown-ups about children they knew who had fallen ill with the disease, always with a sense of relief that, for now, their own children had been spared. My mom’s safety zone was on the beach and in the ocean. She would pack up my sister and me almost every day, stake out a spot away from other families, and place her faith in the ability of the sea breezes and churning waves to keep the virus away.

This went on for years, changing the patterns of our lives. We still went to school. The coming of fall meant there was a respite from the spread of the virus, which attacked the central nervous system, mostly of children, and caused mild to disabling paralysis and sometimes death. As time passed, we began to accept the ever-present threat, avoiding known dangers and hoping not to be struck down. There were constant reminders of what could befall us: terrifying pictures of children who had to live in iron lungs, the leg braces I saw on those less fortunate than myself. Then, in 1955, Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine. My mom zipped me off to our family doctor at lightning speed, saying it was one of the happiest days of her life.

As I finished reading the Post magazine piece, I passed it along to my husband Carl. He told me of his own memories of “the polio scare,” growing up on 13th Place in northeast Washington D.C., just a short distance from the Franciscan Monastery. He recalls summer days when he would venture out of his family’s row house, looking for kids on bikes or skates, maybe a pal or two to walk to the nearby school or the monastery for a day’s adventure. Instead, he would find near-empty streets. One summer day, his mom broke the news about a playmate who caught the disease and died.

I also had a chance conversation with my friend Barbara. I’ve known her for years, we’re part of a special lunch bunch that frequently spends three or four hours talking about everything from books to travel to world events, families, and grandkids. When I mentioned the article to her, she said she had already read it with great interest because… she had polio when she was six years old. How is it possible, I asked, that she never mentioned this? “I don’t think about it a lot,” she said, “but the article made me reflect—it gave me permission to realize that this was, in fact, a very big deal.”

Barbara has spent the past several days thinking about the sudden onset of the illness during her summer between first and second grades, the ride in the ambulance, propped up on one elbow to see pictures in the book her mother was reading to her along the way, not being able to sit up by the time they reached the hospital as the paralysis spread quickly. She spent six weeks in a hospital ward with row upon row of other children with polio, unable to see her parents except for a short visit each Sunday. She remembers the whirlpool tub treatments and the smell of the hot packs placed on her limbs to keep the paralysis from spreading. It must have worked, she says, because in six weeks she was able to walk out of the hospital. And yet, she hasn’t thought about it much. In fact, she isn’t sure her own grown children know that this happened to her. It’s just something she tuned out internally, she says, an unconscious decision not to hold onto because it was just too scary.

I have been struck by these memories that we of a certain age have always carried with us, of another time when we practiced “social distancing” and stayed close to home, trying to avoid a frightening disease. Some of us were lucky, some of us were not. One of my younger friends observed the irony for my generation: We were the target group for polio when we were so young and we are now in the crosshairs of the coronavirus, the most at-risk group of Americans.

Today’s virus is much less discriminating when it comes to its target groups, and it will be with us for quite some time. I realize now that the lessons I learned so many years ago have come into play once again, as I watch warily and learn to accommodate the virus’s presence until another miracle vaccine is found. When that day comes, I will be reminded, again, of the gift that Jonas Salk gave to us all so long ago. For the sake of all of us now, across all generations, for everyone who is waiting to hug their families and friends and get back to their lives, I hope that day comes soon.





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