A Tale of Two Viruses

Daly Walker was struck by polio when he was a boy. Today, he compares America’s response to polio in the 1950s with COVID-19 today.
A child rests in an iron lung

While Daly Walker escaped a stint in an iron lung, other children diagnosed with polio required the gargantuan respirator to help them breathe after muscles that allowed them to inhale and exhale suffered paralysis. (Source: Centers for Disease Control/Public Health Image Library)

This article first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and is being shared here with permission. Dr. Walker is a graduate of Indiana University School of Medicine and a retired surgeon. 

ON A SEARING hot summer day in 1949, as if hung by a wire, the sun was encircled by a luminous blue corona. Its hot rays bore down on a dusty ball diamond in a small Indiana town’s city park. At home plate, an eight-year-old boy in a red ball cap and Chuck Taylor tennis shoes stood with a bat on his shoulder. The little ball player was me. For a couple days, I had suffered with a stuffy nose, feeling listless and sore all over. A summer cold, Mother called it. She blamed my symptoms on too much running around and roughhousing. The night before when I went to bed, she had slathered my neck and nostrils with Vicks VapoRub. Now in the batter’s box I bent down to grab a handful of dust as I had seen big Ted Kluszewski do at a Cincinnati Reds game. A sharp pain shot up my neck and into my head. It frightened me. What’s this? I thought. What’s wrong with me? When I took a practice swing, the bat moved in slow motion as if it were a heavy broom.

“Look alive,” Coach Shoemaker called to me from the mound where he was waiting to lob a pitch that would be easy for me to hit. My neck was so stiff and painful I had to turn my whole body to see him. As the ball came toward me, I closed my eyes and vomited. All my strength drained from my chest down my stomach and out through my feet onto the ground. My legs crumpled, and, as if pushed, I stumbled forward and fell into the dirt. My breath came in gasps. My ears were ringing. My bat, the ball, and my red cap lay beside me in the dust. Coach ran to me and dropped to his knees. He rolled me over and took my head in his hands, sending an electric current through my neck.

“What’s the matter, son?” he pleaded. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh. Oh. My neck,” I groaned. My eyes fluttered open again as Coach’s face swam above me. And the sun, too. So bright. “My head. I’m sick. So sick. Help me. Please.”

I struggled to stand, but none of my muscles were working. In his beefy arms, the coach gathered me up and ran toward his station wagon that was parked behind the backstop. A flash of white light struck me. Then everything went dark.

At the county hospital a spinal tap by a Dr. Painter confirmed that my diagnosis was poliomyelitis, also known then as infantile paralysis. The virus soon settled into my brainstem and paralyzed my swallowing muscles. I was unable to eat.

At times near death, I spent the summer isolated in a sweltering hospital room in Muncie, Indiana. In the bed across the room from me was my older sister, Sandra. She too had polio, hers a non-paralytic encephalitis that caused her to sleep endlessly. There were no antiviral medicines and little to do to treat polio except rest and endure the scalding Sister Kenny hot packs they wrapped around my body. One night, as the pitiless virus crept near the respiratory center of my brainstem, my breathing became labored. The nurses had a respirator standing by, but mercifully the progression of virus halted, and I escaped the iron lung.

When I was finally well enough to leave Ball Memorial, Dad drove me home in his Buick and carried me up the front steps of our house where an orange sign tacked to the door greeted me. It read, “ACUTE ANTERIOR POLIOMYELITIS. Keep out of this house. By Order of the Board of Health. Any person removing this card without authority is liable to prosecution.”

Mother had arranged for a hospital bed to replace the dining room table. There Dad laid me under a crystal chandelier with the curtains drawn. In the dim light, everything about me was bone — ribs, vertebrae, scapula. I barely made a dent in the mattress. For homecoming gifts, Dad had bought me a set of junior golf clubs and Mother a View-Master with disks of magical places like Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon where they promised to take my sister and me after I was well. I stayed there in the dining room for a couple of months where Mother home-schooled me and nourished me with food she pureed in a Waring blender and injected the pablum into a red rubber tube that I swallowed for each feeding. Eventually, I regained strength enough to walk. By the end of the fourth grade I was finally able to rejoin my classmates.

Now, seventy years later, I am a retired surgeon. Although I am in good health, the wounds of polio have never completely healed. With aging, the nerve cells in my brainstem that were damaged by the virus have begun to fatigue further, resulting in a post-polio syndrome that has weakened my partially paralyzed swallowing mechanism. To compensate, I wash down my food with liquids. A few Heimlich maneuvers have been necessary to keep me from choking.

I spend my winters on a small barrier island on the Gulf coast of Florida where I serve as chairman of the board of a not-for-profit health clinic that provides primary care for the island’s residents. Normally the island is a peaceful paradise with sugary beaches and waterfront estates where magenta bougainvillea clings to the white walls and bright burgees flutter from the bows of picnic boats moored in marinas. But now, reminiscent of 1949, a virus is sweeping explosively through the world’s human population, wreaking havoc wherever it infects. In the grip of the virus, the island’s tranquility is shattered. Waiting for the evil pathogen to make its appearance, life is eerie, apocalyptical.

Because the county and state governments have offered no public health support, out of necessity, the clinic has become the island’s department of health, and by default, I have become the chief medical officer but with no authority to enforce the social distancing rules and recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control.

Early most mornings, I tour the island’s village to assess how well its citizens are practicing social distancing. I feel like Dr. Rieux in Camus’ The Plague, who found it hard to believe that pestilence was about to crash down on his town. Everywhere I look I see something that takes me back to that summer of polio in 1949. The memories of that time are like wandering shadows that now have acquired substance.

On a sandbar, an armada of pleasure boats anchors thoughtlessly side by side. Dog walkers defy the county mandate and climb over barricades to stroll the beaches. I see teenagers in bathing suits with boogie boards patrolling the streets in golf carts, and the echo of my mother’s voice comes to me saying, “For God’s sake you’re not going swimming. You’ll catch polio there.” Or, “Are you crazy? Don’t you dare drink out of that fountain.” In an alley where ice cream is sold through a window, a cluster of kids is jammed into the narrow space, ignoring social distancing while licking their waffle cones. Their appetite for sugar causes me to remember my own craving for sweets and how Mother, after my tube feedings, would put a bite of chocolate cake or a chunk of Clark Bar in my mouth for me to chew and enjoy the taste before spitting it into a bowl she held.

In the heart of the village a banner defiantly stretches across the front of a restaurant saying OPEN. On the other side of the street their customers cluster eating boxed lunches and ignoring signs asking them not to gather there. Nearby a store that has refused to shut down is holding a sidewalk sale. Bargain hunters paw through racks of resort wear in total disrespect for the coronavirus and their fellow humans. They cause me to recall the shuttered up stores on Winchester, Indiana’s courthouse square. Main Street lying ghostly and silent like a contaminated river. In particular Engle’s Music Store comes to mind. On its door, crepe hung like a black silk heart mourning the polio deaths of the owner and his wife who left their two young daughters orphaned.

My father was a funeral director, and he buried the young couple in Fountain Park Cemetery on the edge town, as well as nine other local citizens who succumbed to polio that summer. I can only imagine what he felt at graveside watching those caskets sink into the ground while his own two children’s lives were in jeopardy. Six decades later I wonder who on this island will die.

So what is different about the manner in which citizens of this island are responding to the coronavirus epidemic compared to the way their forebearers responded to the polio virus epidemic? It can’t be based on statistics. There will be many more people infected with COVID-19 in 2020 than there were with polio in 1949. The number of deaths from corona has already far exceeded the nearly 3,000 polio deaths in 1949. Why then are people responding to the epidemic with less commitment, compliance, and sacrifice than those in the era of infantile paralysis?

Maybe it is because in 1949 the nation had recently come through a war with victory gardens, ration books, Rosie the Riveters, and 17-year-olds who volunteered to serve their country. Back then everyone knew about putting their private interests second to the nation’s. But now, since 9/11, Americans have grown relatively immune from adversity, and in these halcyon times, we have become more wrapped up in ourselves. We just want to let the good times roll. Or perhaps it’s because in 1949 the United States was still under the influence of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who himself had his legs paralyzed from polio at age 39. He had a passion for those who were suffering. As well as a deep desire to prevent others from experiencing what he had. He said, “That dread disease that we battle at home, like the enemy we oppose abroad, shows no concern, no pity. . .It strikes — with its most frequent and devastating force. . .And that is why much of the future strength of America depends on the success that we achieve in combating this disease.” President Roosevelt’s March of Dimes not only funded research for a polio vaccine and assisted victims on the long path through physical rehabilitation, it gave everyone a chance to contribute and join the battle.

At times, I find myself remembering the day in 1955 when it was announced that the Salk vaccine trial was a success, and with Dr. Salk’s magic elixir, we had conquered polio. In my little Indiana town, the Methodist Church rang its bell, Anchor Hocking Glass Factory blew its whistle, car horns honked, and my mother hugged me and my sister. Everyone felt safe again and joy was ubiquitous. It was the March of Dimes that allowed this miracle of immunization to happen. Today, how do we pull together — while staying apart — in the time of COVID-19?

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The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Daly Walker