Friday, December 21, 2012
The fear was like nothing I have experienced since. It was life threatening, and life-altering in a way that was so familiar to our family, as my paternal grandmother, Emma, came home to the from the Boone County fair in Albion and felt tired, sick and weak. That was in 1918. She never walked again.
Her wheelchair was familiar territory, and it was well-equipped. She kept her scissors and a big kitchen knife beside her so she didn’t have to make as many trips to find things as we do. There were few doors in their house on Main Street in Genoa, so she could go from room to room in the chair without that impediment.
The epidemics seemed to strike every summer, children were the hardest hit and I remember that public drinking fountains were thought to be one source of the virus along with swimming pools. The outbreak of 1952 when I was 7 years old was the worst—58,000 cases, over 3,000 deaths and over 21,000 with some paralysis.
Iron lungs. You saw them on television, and the sound was enough to frighten a child, or anyone, the rhythmic wheeze to help the patient breathe, in and out, in and out. That could be you!
Then came Jonas Salk and in 1955 the immunizations started. A sugar cube with the oral vaccine was oh so sweet, but we didn’t mind a bit the sting of the needle when first immunized. While in many times, not just today, one could have expected Salk to strike it rich, but he had no patent and remarked, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” The son of the New York Jewish immigrants had lifted a heavy burden from children of my time and their parents.
Immunizations could eliminate the disease, but there are still nearly 1,000 cases worldwide each year.
That house on Main street was not their first home “in town” as they had decided to move from the farm before her sickness. The reasons have never been clear, but I have always been suspicious that it had to do with conflict and jealousies among my grandfather, Homer’s, siblings. He built her a two-story house that still stands on the hill in Genoa with steep steps to the first floor, not knowing how difficult that would be for her after the paralysis. And, he took a job as the manager of the local grain elevator, leaving farming for about 10 years.
When my father graduated from high school in 1930, they bought the farm from the relatives at a “1920’s” price, not what it would be worth during the coming decade. After carrying heavy sacks of grain and other commodities for years, Homer developed a hernia that caused him to “drop to the ground hollering in pain” according to Wallie, so they saved and saved for two years to afford surgery.
Soon after the illness, trying desperately to cure or lessen the effect, they spent months at the hot springs spa in Savannah, Missouri, an adventure they talked about for the remainder of their lives. My dad lived with Homer’s brother and his wife. The treatments were of no value and the only result was Wallie’s abiding hatred for that woman the rest of his life.
We know the profound effect of the illness on Emma, Homer and Wallie, but I wonder what the effect of that fear has had on those of us who experienced it in those formative years. I was 10 when vaccinated for the first time, and the fear should have been gone, but wonder if the effect remained? Never know.