The Pronouncement
by Carol Norris Vincent (written 1999)

The doctor made her pronouncement: I had Post Polio Syndrome.

The diagnosis did not surprise me. I had been having pain and weakness for 10 years. But my recent physical accomplishment was bittersweet because of it. I had made the grueling hike into and out of the Grand Canyon.

I reflected on the 52 years since I had awakened in my Independence home on my eighth birthday in 1946 unable to move. As were so many others during the mid 1940s, I was rushed to the hospital and placed in a huge ward full of children in crib-like iron beds.

Bits and pieces of memory flashed through my mind: the view of the lighted top of the KPL building out the hospital window, the harried nurses who flitted from one crisis to another, Mother and Daddy peering at me through the barred window from the outside, and that unforgettable moment when I could not breathe. I remember trying to holler for a nurse but no sound came out.

The panic that not breathing caused haunts me to this day. The nurses rushed in and took me to a room with children in iron lungs in it. I was placed in one of those dreadful tomb-like machines that incessantly wheezed and clicked, using its bellows as lungs for the paralyzed patient. I was one of the fortunate ones who once again began breathing on my own, so my stay in the lung was short.

A month later, when I was free from paralysis, I went home where Mother massaged me daily with Sister Kenny’s new but still controversial treatments. Mother diligently massaged my back and legs until they returned to normal strength. I can still smell the warm, wet wool cloths that were applied to my body after the massaging was done.

I hated the uncomfortable back brace I had to wear. It hurt and rubbed my skin raw. It was made of canvas and reinforced with rigid metal stays. Mother’s vigorous massaging and the back brace soon helped me return to a normal life with no visible limp. Still, there were lingering signs that only I knew were a result of polio: I was awkward, uncoordinated, fell a lot, and could never do sit-ups. And then there was the claustrophobia — it came and went, but I functioned fairly normally.

So I adjusted to myself: this was the person I was — and I forgot about polio. When I turned 40 in 1978, I decided it was time to get fit — I took aerobic dancing, jogged regularly, and later took up 4-mile daily walking. But after a decade of this fitness effort, I found myself weaker than ever, no more coordinated, and with quirky aches and pains that could not be attributed to arthritis or just aging.

Still, it took 10 years and numerous tests for the grim and painful truth to be revealed: the remnants of the disease that I thought I had left behind more than 50 years ago had permeated my body and would be with me the rest of my life. In reality, my fitness efforts and the Grand Canyon hike had taken a toll that I had not counted on — I had used up some of the remaining muscle that I had left.

Once the spectre of polio has been eradicated from the entire world, Post Polio Syndrome (PPS) eventually will no longer be around. Because of the discovery of the polio vaccine, polio was almost totally eradicated in America in the early 1950s. America’s polio victims — more than 50% of whom now have some symptoms of Post Polio Syndrome — are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. When we are all gone, there won’t be a need for Post Polio Syndrome specialists any more. And no one will hear the pronouncement: you have Post Polio Syndrome.