In 1949, when he was just 5 years old, my great-uncle Doug was admitted to the hospital, along with his 14-year-old sister, Kathleen.
They had both contracted polio along with several other children in the surrounding neighborhoods. Kathleen died four days later. Doug stayed in the hospital for a few months and was placed in an iron lung.
Because polio is a virus that affects a person’s spinal cord, they often can’t move parts of their body, including the muscles in the lungs that help them breathe. The iron lung was a machine designed to help patients breathe by pulling air in and out of the lungs. Most patients were in an iron lung for a few weeks; my uncle Doug was in the iron lung for three months.
Once released from the hospital, Doug underwent multiple surgeries to help correct some of the deformities on the left side of his body and his curved spine. One surgery consisted of him being stretched 6 inches.
During another surgery, he had all 32 vertebrae fused together and was in a body cast from his ears to his toes for six months. Because he was a growing child, the cast had to be cut so he could continue to grow.
As he continued his treatments and began to heal, Doug was told by doctors that he wouldn’t be able to do much in his life because of the physical impairments he was left with. However, this didn’t stop him.
He played baseball despite his back being fused — he would bend over as far as he could to pick up a ball that was hit to him. He took a job in a factory that was specifically designed not to overwork or push him too hard. Instead, he learned about every machine and how it worked so he could do more. He never complained.
Doug worked hard and made a life for himself. He married and had children of his own. He was an active member of his community. He owned his own insurance business.
I had the pleasure of working for Doug and his wife, Susan, for several years when I was in high school. I truly admired Doug. Despite the difficulties he faced in life, he was always kind, willing to help anyone, and was one of the most genuine men I’ve ever known.
One of the conditions that often develops later in life in those that had and survived polio is called post-polio syndrome. This condition is characterized by progressive muscle weakness (including respiratory muscle weakness), fatigue and muscle atrophy.
Sadly, when he was just 63 years old, Doug died suddenly due to complications from post-polio syndrome.
Although polio is a disease that has been mostly eradicated around the world, there are still countries that have cases of this disease. As I was scrolling through news articles as part of my “before I get out of bed in the morning” routine, I came across an article published on Aug. 25 by the World Health Organization that reported the WHO African Region has been designated as “polio-free” after four years without a case of polio.
With this new milestone in Africa, five of the six WHO regions that represent over 90% of the world’s population are now free of the polio virus, which brings us one step closer to completely eradicating this disease. As of today, the only two countries that continue to see cases are Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I came across this article when I did. Sept. 4 is the day Doug died in 2007, and I thought that bringing awareness to this disease, and celebrating the progress we are making is a great way to pay tribute to such a wonderful man.
I’d also like to thank my grandparents Keith and Edith for helping me with this article. Love you both.