Fighting Ghosts

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The war on polio lasted seventeen years, and there were setbacks and embarrassments along the way: Warm Springs barred black polios from its pools; a wartime outbreak of the disease tore through Japanese-Americans trapped in an Arizona relocation center; rival researchers, overeager for the fame and adulation guaranteed for the scientist who first developed a fool-proof vaccine, were guilty of a some- times startling amount of unseemly backbiting; and a faulty batch of vaccine, produced by a pharmaceutical company that had cut corners for fear of missing out on potential profits, infected 204 persons and threatened to undermine the national vaccination program before it could get off the ground.

Critics dismiss the attitudes with which we polios were imbued as simple denial. Nevertheless, denial has had its uses.

But none of that mattered on the twelfth of April, 1955—ten years to the day after FDR’s death at Warm Springs—when Salk announced that his vaccine had proved effective. VICTORY OVER POLIO! read the two-inch headline in our local newspaper, the Chicago Daily News : POLIO VACCINE WORKS!

Those of us born too soon to benefit from Salk’s work rejoiced with the rest of the country, then got on with our lives, very often exhibiting the baffling sort of behavior Henry and I displayed at our Boston lunch. A 1987 study of polio survivors funded by the March of Dimes and included in Gould’s book may provide part of the answer to why we acted that way. It found that a very high percentage of us were “competent, hard-driving and time-conscious over-achievers who demand perfection in all aspects of their personal, professional, and social lives.” Some believe that the disease actually sought out such people to strike, that the inward stress experienced by that kind of personality somehow made them more vulnerable to infection. Others argue that only that kind of personality could have first survived the disease’s acute stage and then managed to flourish in a world filled with obstacles both physical and psychological.

To me, the second explanation seems the more plausible. We were provided with physical therapy during the 1950s but no psychological counseling of the kind now routinely offered to patients who suffer some sudden disability. Infected children were generally kept apart from their parents (whose presence was somehow thought to interfere with recovery), and many came to blame themselves for having fallen ill. “One person thought she got polio because she pulled her dog’s ears,” recalled a woman who attended a recent meeting of adult survivors. “Another … believed he caught polio because he ate blueberries he wasn’t supposed to eat.” It seemed entirely plausible to me at ten that I’d fallen ill because I’d kept sword fighting with a friend after my mother told me to stop.

Support groups for polio patients were unknown in our time. We were encouraged to suppress our anger and grief, not express them; to transform those emotions into an ever-greater determination to rebuild muscles and resume the most “normal” life possible. The titles of memoirs written by polios suggest the grin-and-bear-it attitudes we were encouraged to adopt: Rise Up and Walk , No Time for Tears , The Long Road Back , Through the Storm , Keep Trying . One historian who read thirty-five such works found their “themes of recovery and redemption … reminiscent of the Puritan Covenants of Works and of Grace.”

Modern critics dismiss the attitudes with which we were imbued as simple denial, and I have no doubt that we all have paid a psychological price for failing to question them. Still, denial has had its uses. I believe that it was in part because we were taught that we could do anything despite our handicaps that we actually did manage to do a good deal.

Polio is virtually gone now from the United States (though it persists in developing countries, where there may be as many as 116,000 new cases every year, most of them in India and China). But even here it seems to be having one last laugh. Thirty or forty years on, thousands of us have suddenly found ourselves weaker than we’d expected to be at this stage of life. Physicians differ on the causes of this disheartening trend, but the prevailing view seems to be that in our zeal to appear as unaffected by polio as possible, many of us simply overdid it, wearing out damaged muscles that might better have been husbanded. “It isn’t their vices that are catching up with them,” Gould quotes one physician as saying. “It’s their virtues, good old-fashioned rehabilitative virtues: exercise, effort and physical achievement.”

Still, old dogs remain wary of new tricks. I saw Henry Hampton not long ago. He has recently had to supplement his brace with two crutches, while I, who haven’t worn a brace for four decades, find I now need one to bolster my weaker leg. Even so, I’m willing to bet that if we returned together to that two-story restaurant, we’d again start right for the stairs.