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50 years after polio epidemic, memories are still fresh

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Memories of polio epidemics are fresh in the minds of Lonnie Miller, Shirley Weis and Ron Schafer.

Miller of Westby, Wis., was stricken with polio in September 1952. A janitor wearing gloves came into his classroom, removed his desk and burned it along with textbooks and pencils. Miller said people were scared to death of polio.

Summers changed after the polio vaccine was approved 50 years ago, he said.

"We had the run of the neighborhood again," he said. "Pools and recreation programs were open for the whole summer. We could hop on a bus and go to a ballgame, go shopping, ride bikes through the parks and be with our friends. Weddings, reunions and vacations could be planned for August. No more isolation. Parents were relieved and didn't live in fear of this dreaded disease."

Shirley Weis was a nurse's aide at Lutheran Hospital and she's never forgotten a patient named Harold in an iron lung.

"The poor soul was ravaged with the horrible effects of this disease where the muscles were atrophied beyond belief, and Harold had to have a tracheotomy in order to breathe," Weis said.

"Harold was a very pleasant person to work with and had a quick smile for everyone."

La Crosse County's children were among those "polio pioneers" chosen for field trials of the Salk polio vaccine that started in the spring of 1954. The vaccine was given to 822 first- and second-grade students in La Crosse County and those in eight other counties in the country. None of them contracted polio. The results in all the other test counties were the same.

Schafer of La Crosse was a "polio pioneer" in 1954 and was recently wearing his "polio pioneer" button to mark the

50th anniversary of the polio vaccine. He was part of the research group in Tulsa, Okla., as a kid.

"I remember the summers of the time, moms would have us take two naps a day so we wouldn't get run down and vulnerable," Schafer said. "I recall classmates we were told were in iron lungs. They would bring iron lungs around for display and would have one kid in the group get in it and have it vent for them. We were both fascinated and scared."

The approval of the vaccine marked the beginning of the end for polio in the United States.

Two weeks ago, the Tribune asked people to share their memories of polio. Their stories appear below.

Staff Loveland

I contracted polio in September 1950 just after my fifth birthday. I was about to enter kindergarten at the Campus School at La Crosse State Teachers College. My brother Warren, 3, contracted a milder form. My mother was three months pregnant with my sister, Carole. So it was a very scary time for my parents.

Carole was born unaffected. Warren Jr. had no after effects. I became a quadriplegic and I am in a wheelchair. I also have some "post-polio" involvement. My father, Warren Loveland Sr., became very involved in the March of Dimes.

I missed kindergarten because I spent time in rehabilitation. My grade school years were in La Crosse at Emerson School and in the orthopedic unit, where daily physical therapy was available. There were multiple visits to Warm Springs, Ga., for orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation. There was also some surgery in Milwaukee.

I received an undergraduate degree in math and a master's in computer science from Southern Illinois University. I also received graduate degrees in operations research from the University of Florida. After working for 23 years as a systems analyst at the Boeing Co., I am retired living near Seattle.

Sue Adams

As a fourth-grader in Bangor grade school in 1954, I had already been exposed to the dangers of polio. My mother's brother, Isidore, had contracted polio as a child, which resulted in him wearing a brace on his leg for the rest of his life.

I also remember the summer of 1953. We took our usual vacation to Hatfield and Marshfield, Wis. My mother and aunt heard there was polio in Neillsville, and when we drove through on our way to Marshfield, they made my cousin and I hold our breath so we wouldn't catch the polio virus. That next school year, we received the polio vaccine. We were in a group testing the vaccine. No one minded being a guinea pig. And none of us got polio.

Linda Stone

My brother, Tom Gschwind, was the first polio case diagnosed in the epidemic of the 1930s and 1940s. I was not born yet at the time, but my mother, Angel Tucker, tells me that he was 1 year old when he started running a fever. When he pointed up to the cupboard where his Grandma Gschwind kept the aspirin, she handed one to him to see what he would do and he tried to put it on the back of his neck. Within a day or two, he could not stand. That was when she took him to the clinic and learned the terrible truth.

He couldn't walk, and she carried him everywhere for over a year. His legs were pulled up tight to his chest and she would have to straighten them daily, and how he would cry. She would put him in a buggy/stroller and take him to a school where county nurses would massage and exercise his muscles. The little guy had to wear a brace for several years.

Eventually, only his one leg was noticeably deformed (shorter and thinner with the foot flopped out). At that time they could not lengthen legs but they could shorten them. She could have taken him to the Shrine Hospital and had his good leg shortened. By my mother didn't want to risk losing his good leg. Tom developed Parkinson's disease in his 40s and passed away just after he turned 65.

When the polio vaccine became available, my mom took all of her other children down to be vaccinated right away.

Mary Bolen

I had a best friend in school that contracted polio. She ended up in an iron lung. I never thought she would make it through alive. She has gone from crutches to a wheelchair now, but still remains a very active person.

I remember as a child that my father would not let me visit my favorite aunt because of the polio epidemic in Madison. I was so hurt.

I also remember taking my own children to get the oral vaccine. I remember having to go to West High School in Madison and wait in long lines.

Lola Devine

I was about 2 years old when I contracted polio in 1945. There were three cases in Merrill, Wis., when I had it. I really feel I was the lucky one. The other girl has always had braces on both legs, and the boy died. I was taken to a children's hospital and put into a iron lung. I said I was very lucky. I was left only with a crippled hand.

As a child, my grandmother was very worried about me doing stuff outside like everyone else. She was just was so sure I would get polio again. When the vaccine was out, our family got the vaccine.

I had a transplant in my hand to help with a weak muscle and to get more use of my thumb, but it didn't work. Just so wonderful that polio has mostly been stamped out.

Michael E. Nelson

In the 1950s, I grew up in a small rural Kansas town and the threat of polio was always on my mother's mind. In fact, she was terrified of the disease and developed certain rules to "prevent" polio: no drinking from a public drinking fountain (most were "bubblers" and children were known to "suck" the fountain), no touching handrails on public stairways, no use of public restrooms, no swimming in public pools or local ponds after the Fourth of July, no overnight stays at a friend's house until it frosted in the fall, and avoid large gatherings of people (not hard to do in Kansas) when the weather was hot (most of the summer). To this day I have a strong negative reaction to touching handrails, using a public restroom and drinking from a public fountain. Just little quirks left over from my childhood.

Betty Marsolek

When I was 6 years old, I remember I had a terrific headache and calling for my Mom to come and get me because I could not move. I was in the hospital for 11 days, and I remember the terrible spinal taps and the hot, hot wool compresses to both legs. I had no physical therapy, so I had to learn to walk like my children. They put a stool in front of me and kept doing this until I finally did walk, but it took a lot of time.

I had to retire about 10 years ago due to the late effects of polio, but did not know what was happening to me. There are not a lot of doctors that even want to hear about us. For years we were told that it was all in our heads, and to get on with life and don't think about the pain.

Post-polio syndrome is the delayed effects of the illness, which leads to further weakening of the muscles. Now we are reaching for canes, braces and wheelchairs that we thought we would be free from. We started a post-polio support group in Whitehall, Wis. We meet twice a year on the second Saturday in April and October.

Marilyn Wood and Corky Huber

These are some memories we have of my mother/grandmother, who contracted polio in 1925. Grace Bruha was 21 years old, had been married for one year and was eight months pregnant when she got polio. Her husband was told to prepare for the worst, as Grace was in an iron lung and was not expected to live. The baby was stillborn.

When Grace finally went home from the isolation ward at St. Francis, she continued to be bedridden. Her husband would go to work in the morning, come home at noon to move his wife from the bedroom to the living room, give her lunch, do her leg exercises and then return to work.

In 1929, Grace went to the McLain Orthopedic Sanitarium in St. Louis for three months. There she improved and could walk with braces and crutches. This is when the doctor told her to go home and have a baby. She went on to have two children, David and Marilyn.

Like most polio victims, Grace's muscles atrophied to the point where she was in a wheelchair. This would be her mode of mobility for more than 50 years.

This was a difficult time socially for families experiencing polio's devastation. Friends and acquaintances sometimes chose to keep their distance, and relationships changed.

Grace always prayed that a vaccine would be discovered so her children and grandchildren would be safe from polio. She never prayed for herself -always caring about others. She died in 1985.

Her grandchildren remember going to Harry Spence and standing in long lines for the polio vaccine sugar cubes in the Dixie cups. This was a joyous occasion for Grace and her family.


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