Living with Polio. A Pediatrician Talks to Her Mom About Life before Vaccines
By Alice Phillips, M.D.
As a pediatrician, I have been lucky to practice medicine in the post-vaccine era. Although I have watched kids struggle with whooping cough, meningitis, mumps and pneumonia, I am happy to say I have never seen many of the vaccine-preventable diseases. I rely upon my education and training to know about the diseases and recognize them should the need arise.
I do frequently wonder, ‘What was life like for families and children before vaccines were introduced?’ How did people manage the illnesses and anxiety that came with the disease?
For a firsthand answer, I only had to talk to the person sitting at my dining room table during a typical weekend family dinner – my mom.
It was the summer of 1949. While other children were skipping rocks and riding their bikes, my mom was lying in a hospital bed as one of many children struck down by polio.
The illness began as a fever with trouble swallowing and weakness in her left leg. The doctors quickly admitted her to the hospital for quarantine and treatment. Her most vivid memory of the time has to be of the spinal tap used to aid in her diagnosis. At the time, there were no child life specialists to comfort her. She was told to hold still and if she moved the test might kill her.
After 3 months in the hospital with only her mother allowed to stay, her symptoms seemed to be worsening. Her kind physician came into the room one day to visit and cheer up the family. His kindness unfortunately, resulted in him contracting the disease and being confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his days. After all, back then doctors did not even realize the value of handwashing.
I asked my mom what people thought about polio in the pre-vaccine era. “Everybody was scared to death of catching it! They did not know how they got it but knew it was prevalent in the summer months. They tried to avoid the sun and swimming holes since those seemed to be related.”
We now understand the transmission of polio much better. Polio comes from a virus that is highly contagious. It is spread person to person through sneezing, coughing or contact with human feces. Before the successful introduction of the polio vaccine in the 1950s, the disease resulted in the paralysis of 15,000 people per year. Since 1979, no cases of polio have originated within the United States but cases can be brought in by travelers with the disease.
My mom was one of the lucky ones. Just as a conversation with her medical team was turning to placing her in an iron lung to support her breathing she began to recover. The impact of the illness, however, continues to this day with residual weakness in her legs that makes walking for her a constant challenge.
I asked her what she thought about vaccines as a mom and a grandmother. She responded, “I experienced polio and its effect on my life. I want all my kids and grandkids protected so they don’t have to go through what I did.”
Vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio and the re-emerging measles and mumps are not historically that far away from us. We cannot forget the tremendous impact these diseases have had on the lives of so many before the introduction of vaccines.
If you want to learn more, you can check out the CDC website on polio.
Better yet, just look across the table on a sunny Saturday afternoon and if you are fortunate to do so, ask the folks who lived it. Their stories and experiences are powerful.
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Get to know Alice Phillips, M.D.
Doctor Phillips earned her undergraduate degree from Texas A & M University. After completing medical school at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston Texas, she completed her Pediatric Residency at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. She and her family relocated to Fort Worth in 1996 when she joined Cook Children's Physician Network at the Cityview Office. With two teenagers, one at home and one in college, life can be hectic but Dr Phillips has a passion for serving at-need Fort Worth Children. Serving the children of Fort Worth does not end at the end of the work day. She currently serves as the Founding Director for a Big Brother's Big Sisters, Big Hope Student Mentoring program through her church. This program matches at risk kids at FWISD's Rosemont Elementary School with mentors. She has served as a mentor for one such student at the school for the past 2 years. In addition to this she supports back to school uniform drives and Christmas projects to provide Christmas presents for over 500 FWISD Students.
To continue in her pursuits of helping at risk children, Dr Phillips is currently working towards her Masters in Public Health at University of North Texas Health Science Center.