Growing up with a mother suffering from the devastating effects of the polio virus was both a curse and a blessing. I learned at a very young age how to be an empathic caregiver. Even though she never liked to ask for help, it was needed, as polio took more than just the use of Mom’s leg, and Dad couldn’t always be there to help. In fact, he worked three jobs to support our family, so he was rarely home, and that left my younger brother and I to help, most times begrudgingly, as kids so often do.
As a selfish young girl I wasn’t one to wish for so many “things” per say, it was more often that I wished for a “normal” mom–one who could run, jump, and play with me like other moms did; one who didn’t wear a full brace on her leg, and one that everyone wasn’t so apt to stare at wherever we went. I can still remember the sting of embarrassment when my friends would so rudely gawk and ask me questions about her handicap. We all know how cruel kids can be. And since I was also raised a strict Roman Catholic, I would incessantly pray to God, the Virgin Mary, and all the Angels and Saints to cure my sweet mother who was often in pain trying to accomplish everyday motherly tasks. I can’t imagine the things she went through. So often I would cry myself to sleep wishing that God would cure her terrible disease and ease her pain. But it never happened.
My mother contracted the polio virus when she was only five years old. At that time, the epidemic of 1952, for instance, affected more than 50,000 Americans and had a mortality rate of about 12 percent. ” It is difficult to realize today the extent of the fear and panic that gripped the public. Polio haunted everyone: families stayed at home; swimming pools were closed; public events were canceled. ” -Lauro S. Halstead, MD
It still breaks my heart to think about it, because back then, the pandemic was everywhere, and the therapies they employed in those days make me cringe just thinking about them. She was in and out of the hospital continually for the first fifteen years of her life. By age 13 she had over thirteen surgeries, and at one point was in a full body cast, eating boiled liver three times a day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, because at that time they believed it would help. UGH! Boiled liver! Could you imagine?
I remember a story she once told me about feeling so disgusted with eating it that she finally had more than she could stand, and as hard as she could muster, threw that boiled liver at the nurses, and watched it bounce off the walls and the floor. I’m pretty sure I would have done the same thing.
Years later when she would marry and become pregnant the doctors would tell her that it wasn’t a good idea she bear children, as the extra weight and ordeal of childbirth might be too much for her small body to handle. But she ignored the doctors, and gave birth to me in her 21st year, and my younger brother two years later. The doctors had warned her that having another baby could have killed her. But it didn’t, and thank God, everyone came out alright.
They also told her she’d have to have a hip replacement at some point in her life, and didn’t recommend having that surgery at least until she was over 40, as they could only give her one hip replacement surgery in her lifetime, so it would have to last. She waited until she was in her late 40s to have that surgery, and believe me when I tell you, that was a rough experience. She spent long hours in physical therapy, and worked hard just to make it through the day. What made it even more difficult was, by then, the effects of post-polio syndrome had already begun working their way into her body. At that time, post-polio syndrome wasn’t recognised as a disease, it wasn’t even diagnosed yet, and was not a part of doctors’ vernacular. It wasn’t until years later, after many survivors of polio began coming down with the similar symptoms that doctors even looked into the effects of polio and post-polio syndrome.
–Many of the people who survived their bouts with paralytic poliomyelitis in the 1940s and 1950s are suffering from a new condition that ranges from pain to weakening of the muscles to various degrees of paralysis.
” Decades after recovering much of their muscular strength, survivors of paralytic polio are reporting unexpected fatigue, pain and weakness. The cause appears to be degeneration of motor neurons.” –Lauro S. Halstead, MD.
“Research into this new syndrome is ongoing, but it is apparently related to a normal weakening of muscles that occurs as people age when applied to muscles that were already weakened by polio. If this is the case, options for treatment may be limited. Support groups have grown up around the world for people who now suffer from Post-Polio Syndrome.” –teachspace.org
Over the years that passed there were many times, I’m sure, she wanted to give up for all the pain, suffering and difficulties that came along with raising two bratty kids while living with this debilitating disease. But she never gave up, and fought everyday to make sure we had everything we needed, while Dad worked his toucas off day and night to pay the bills. My brother and I learned at a very young age how to help with chores that she just couldn’t do. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like juggling two kids with cleaning, cooking, shopping and all the other tasks mothers are supposed to handle.
She is a champion and a hero in my eyes, and I will always look up to her, not only for teaching us what it means to push through the hard stuff to make it through the other side, but to have faith and trust in God to help us through the things we just can’t do on our own. Thanks Mom, for your unwavering faith and trust that God always helps those who help themselves. You have taught me what it means to be strong. You teach me everyday what it means to never give up, and I couldn’t be more thankful that God gave me both you and Dad as beautiful teachers. You will always be my hero.
-Smith, Jane S. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1990. p. 157.
–Lauro S. Halstead, MD, Original Publication: Scientific American April 1998 Vol 278 Number 4:36-41
Matheson, Mavis J., M.D. “Post-polio Syndrome (PPS): Information for Physicians.” The Rollin’ Rat: Post-Polio Syndrome & Disability Resources . April 1995 http://www.azstarnet.com/~rspear/mavis.html . (27 May 1999)