Polio Diaries – Episode 5

And so it was that on Monday December 28, 1953 my parents returned me to hospital.  Christmas was over and I don’t remember any more of it than my dad throwing up.  Friday January 1, 1954 I entered what was to be my first complete year as a rediscovered individual and that year would include a revolutionary new treatment regime.  The Sister Kenny polio treatment process was just beginning to take off in North America but that is a whole other story.  I will save it for a separate episode.  Needless to say there was serious resistant to this treatment initially due to professional protectionism rather than the benefit to the patient.

As I have said my pre-polio memories are limited.  I could probably dig some up if I were to look at a more intensive hypnotherapy approach in conjunction with some heavy duty regressive therapy but to what purpose.  I don’t really believe that my childhood was that traumatic, just different.  The only other pre-polio memory I have in regards to walking, besides the walk/collapse down the hallway to tell my mother I didn’t feel well, was going to the outhouse with snow piled higher than I was tall.  This was Winnipeg and it was winter

Although we had moved to the city by then my parents first home in Winnipeg had no plumbing.  We had an outhouse.  This is an important detail because one of the ways the polio virus is transmitted in through fecal matter.  Nobody used Lysol to clean their outhouses.  In fact I’m not even sure the floor was ever swept, it was a dirt floor.  The polio virus can live for up to two weeks in a persons body after it activates.  The activation concept is important because a person can carry a latent virus for a long time but it isn’t until it activates that it becomes contagious.  That little detail is even more important today.  With the federal government having cut the Interim Federal Health Program we now run the risk of every new refugee coming from a country where polio still exists to re-introduced it to Canada.

The virus lives in a persons intestines and can also live in a persons throat.  The throat process makes it an airborne contagion and is carried by water vapour when a persons sneezes.  It can also be spread through the fecal matter that we all produce so it is always best to thoroughly wash your hands after changing your babies diaper.  Once the virus is activated a person becomes contagious immediately and can continue to be contagious for up to two weeks after developing flu like symptoms.  Once the virus has run its course the damage is done and the chance of affecting others is over.  One of the problems today is that most doctors don’t know what to look for because there is a belief out there that polio has been eradicated.

With the virus having run its course you are now polio free however you are now dealing with the paralysis created by the virus.  The way the virus does that is by attacking the nervous system in the spine that controls muscle movement.  This is an important distinction because it doesn’t affect the column of nerves that affect sensory (or feeling) factors.  Unlike a spinal cord injury, a polio survivor has sensory ability (feeling).

This is an important distinction.  Paralysis doesn’t just affect the muscles that provide ambulatory functioning.  It affects the muscles that control breathing, bowel/bladder functions, and all of the other muscles that hold various anatomical processes in place.  I had one close friend, now passed, who could actually feel her ribs sagging.  For myself if it wasn’t for the sensory factor I would have bigger issues with bowel/bladder routines.  My muscles in those areas are a little weaker so I rely on the sensory to know when I have to head for the bathroom.  It’s not just about walking, it’s all the other little things that so many people just take for granted.

That ability to feel also cuts back on issues like pressure sores, the ability to walk effectively and so much more.  What people don’t seem to realize is that if you don’t know where your feet land when you are using crutches your balance is really impaired.  I have friends with spinal cord injuries and their issues are so different from mine.  If you don’t know where your feet land you have no idea if there is a pebble there or not.  And a pebble can throw you off balance just as easily as a rock.  It’s these little things.

Anyway until next time.  I’m going to go and enjoy the sun.  In the meantime here’s a little video from the CBC archives (no sound) that shows why we shouldn’t be letting this devastating disease get a toe hold in Canada again.  Enjoy!

Just one man’s experience.

Polio Diaries, Episode 3

Polio unit
The numbers were so high they required dormitories.

1953 saw the last of the major polio epidemics in North America.  In Canada that resulted in almost 9000 cases with over 500 deaths.  That was an 18% mortality rate and that figure climbs as high as 30% for adults.  The mortality rate isn’t as high anymore where polio still exists but then medicine has come a long way and the development of  antibiotics has made a major contribution.

Many of the deaths in those days were attributed more to infection than the actual polio.  In todays society the mortality rate should be zero.  With the vaccine there is absolutely no excuse for people to have to suffer the loss of loved ones due to the devastating disease.

The 1953 polio epidemic happened in the early days of penicillin.  In June 1942 there was just enough US penicillin available to treat ten patients.  Although it had been around many years it wasn’t until 1945 that mass production was started for the use of the general public.  Sulpha drugs were the antibiotic of choice then and they created a wide range of other issues.

As I had indicated earlier the high number of polio cases required dormitories, not hospital wards.  The numbers were just to high.  The sudden jump in numbers put huge strains on limited resources and many people just didn’t get treated.  This was also before the time of socialized medicine in Canada so it was a user pay process.

Following my initial diagnosis I spend almost a year in the King George Hospital.  By the time my fourth birthday came around I had spend a quarter of my early life in a hospital.  By the time I turned 16 that percentage had doubled but that is a story for later.

I never experienced any surgery in Winnipeg, that didn’t begin until my family moved us to Calgary.  In fact the move to Calgary was because the Junior Red Cross Crippled Children’s Hospital (now evolved into the Alberta Children’s Hospital) was offering free treatment to child survivors of polio.  It was to obtain treatment for me that my parents decided to uproot the family in 1957 and head for Calgary.  Again a tale for another time.  I did experience the treatment of the day in Winnipeg.  That involved stretching out the affected limbs to keep the tendons from contracting.

You could spend six months or longer in these
You could spend six months or longer in polio splints

That was either done with splints, a body frame or casting.  It was all dependent on the severity of the contractions going on.  And that was related to how much of the virus they were able to drain off from the spinal tap.  In my case it started with casting.  I don’t remember the cast very well but I can still feel the acrid taste of the ether in the back of my throat.  I also remember the gauze mask and I am reminded of it every time I use a strainer with cheese cloth.  The was the anesthetic of the day and it wasn’t uncommon to be accompanied with vomit.  I only have one memory of that and it is mainly olfactory but very vivid.

My parents were able to take me home for Christmas that year but on an out-patient basis and with casts on both legs.  My mother was seven months pregnant at the time with who was to be the fifth addition to the family.  That brother would be almost three months old by the time I came home again.  My only memory of that Christmas was my father carrying me home from a function down the street and him being sick.  My mom recently told me that I had asked him if he was breathing that “terrible smell” but in reality is was too much Christmas cheer.

Following my three day Christmas vacation I was returned to the King George.  It was shortly after my return that the hospital began to slowly practice the Sister Kenny approach to polio rehabilitation.  This approach revolutionized the approach to treating polio.  It also contributed to my aversion to the smell of wet wool to this day.  I will save that topic for my next little entry.

Let me close this one with a couple of quick thoughts.  First, I DO NOT have polio.  I live with the results of polio.  Polio is a virus that runs its course and then it is finished.  As a polio survivor you deal with the consequences of the virus which can be very diverse (from walking with a limp to living in an iron lung).  Telling me I have polio is like telling someone with an acquired disability due to a car accident that they live with the car accident.  They don’t, they live with the results and it is called paraplegia.  And second, in 1994 the North and South America’s were declared polio free by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.  Twenty years later this is no longer true.

There is no reason for children or adults to have to live with the threat of this devastating disease again.  Not when such a simple approach, the polio vaccine, exists.  As a polio survivor I don’t ever want to see the rise of this disease again.  I realize the avoidance of vaccines is a growing movement however every time someone refuses to vaccinate their child, they don’t only threaten their child’s health but they threaten the health of every child in the community.

Just one man’s opinion!