Fear of polio and the iron lung | AspenTimes.com

Fear of polio and the iron lung

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

U.S. Food and Drug AdministrationIron lungs for polio patients in 1953 at the Rancho Los Amigos hospital in Downey, Calif.

School districts around the country today grapple with school-closing policies in the face of H1N1 flu outbreaks, but the polio epidemic of the late 1940s and early 1950s generated greater fear.

Compare today’s news reports with advice regarding polio from the editor of the Aspen Times: “Our high altitude is generally credited as the factor that has spared Pitkin County in the present epidemic, but we do not know whether this is true or not. We can only be careful and follow the few simple rules now known, which are: Do not overexert or become unduly fatigued. Eat plenty of healthful foods and do not go swimming during this period of danger.”

The opening of school was delayed for several weeks in 1946 when the Colorado Emergency Polio Committee recommended that all Colorado schools wait until after the traditional beginning on Labor Day week. The Committee also recommended “that all children under the age of 18 be excluded from public gatherings.” Aspen’s Community Church canceled Sunday School. Telleo Caparrella closed his skating rink at the Armory Hall. The P.E.O. cancelled their annual Flower Show that attracted visitors from all over the state. Polio appeared as a phantom disease; the populace did not understand what caused it or how it was transferred. Fear of the unknown exceeds that of confronting familiar calamities.

Fear of polio continued a decade later when I was in elementary school. While children in other cities practiced preparation for a nuclear attack, we worried about polio. Life magazine’s pictures of backyard bomb shelters illustrated denial of the improbability of survival in a nuclear exchange. We figured that Aspen wasn’t one of Russia’s missile targets, and if there was a war then we could hide in old mine tunnels. Life also carried photos of hospital wards stocked with iron lungs for polio victims. I found the tangible, tomb-like containers sprouting cords, cables and a cavernous victim’s bed to be more fearsome than Russian missiles. The idea of spending the rest of my life in an iron lung was a real and present danger.

Aspen’s only victim, Skip Flewelling, came down with polio in 1952, the year the epidemic peaked with 21,000 cases nationwide. How the disease was spread continued to pose a mystery. Flewelling can only speculate on how he contracted it: possibly during his tonsillectomy or from swimming in a public pool in Leadville. He was told that if he lived he might not walk again. He survived, walked, and played high school basketball, but his muscle strength remains an issue. Skip, reflecting on a lifetime of suffering from the debilitating disease said, “It made me compensate, it made me a tougher person, made me competitive.”

Swimming pools were believed to be a source of contagion. Aspen’s first public pool opened during this period. My mother faced a terrifying decision – whether to enroll me in swimming lessons. Women in her generation in Aspen did not learn to swim, so she herself felt great fear riding in a boat or even visiting a beach. Mother had to choose between the risk of my getting polio and the risk of my drowning. She eventually sent me to swimming lessons, but my own fear of contracting polio diminished the experience for me.

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My most traumatic memory of the period occurred during third grade. Jonas Salk saved the nation with polio vaccine, reducing the number of cases to 5,600 by 1957. All students were administered the polio vaccination at school. Our class lined up alphabetically near the end of the day for shots. Watching from the end of the line and hearing painful screams, I was seized with fear. My classmate Ingrid Elisha was equally stricken. The teacher kept moving her toward the end of the line until she and I were the last two. She was in tears and shaking when a nurse administered her shot. Trembling a few feet away, I saw the needle go into her arm and come clear out the other side. Many vaccinations later, I still can’t watch while receiving a shot.

Subsequent vaccinations used a sugar cube delivery system, saving me from the torture of polio as well as that of injection.