April 29, 2020

Spring of Hope

by J. Frank Wilson, MD, FACR

Today, I recall the profound relief and unbounded joy that accompanied the human conquest of a dreaded disease almost 70 years ago. Consider these moments in my family and professional history:

Terror seized a small Missouri town one hot summer day in 1950. A girl on our street had come down with a febrile illness — the only case in town. Polio was immediately suspected. The town doctor came and posted frightening quarantine signs around her home. Efforts to keep children indoors soon failed, and lacking adequate scientific knowledge, other mitigation efforts were confusing and ineffective. My father had been crippled by polio in childhood, so at my home we grasped what might happen.

Word spread that a spinal tap for diagnosis was being performed. Children's fears soared. Days passed with no report of test results and alarming rumors abounded. Meanwhile, the patient recovered slowly but entirely and uneventfully. Although town life gradually returned to normal, silent dread of a possible polio outbreak remained a constant concern every summer.

Suddenly, one day in the spring of 1954, schoolchildren were herded onto buses taking us to a mass inoculation center. Our poor understanding of the Salk vaccination process created yet another frightening experience. But objections were not entertained, and the injections proved much less traumatic than our active juvenile imaginations had anticipated. On the bus ride home we began to realize that freedom from polio was at hand!

For me, that comfortable impression remained true only until 1965. As a new intern in a government hospital, I was stunned when introduced to the iron lung ward for which I would share responsibility. Fortunately, iron lungs gradually ceased to exist. But more than 25 years later a favorite patient of mine, a man in his seventies — wheelchair-bound by infantile paralysis but treated and cured of prostate cancer — succumbed to complications of a newly diagnosed post-polio syndrome.

Similar polio-related experiences are largely forgotten medical history. But acute awareness and fear persists of the terrible human toll taken by an incurable contagious disease. In time, I trust we will emerge stronger as a result of COVID-19 by building upon past successes and focusing on encouragement and HOPE.