Shortly after Thanksgiving of 1951, my mother, Myrna Nielson Thacker, contracted the polio virus. She had spent the long weekend with extended family and doing Christmas shopping in Salt Lake. Upon returning to Spanish Fork, she experienced flu-like symptoms, a high fever, numbness and stiffness in her feet and legs, and excruciating pain in her back. Within a few days, she was paralyzed from the waist down.
Polio was the pandemic of the early 1950s and like the coronavirus, many of those infected had little or no symptoms. Yet for about 1% of infections it entered the central nervous system and in 1 of 1000 cases it progressed to paralysis. Simple flu-like symptoms during those years created fear that you had the virus and if severe, it could result in paralysis or even death. My mother was one of four known polio cases on her street in Spanish Fork and one of the severe paralytic cases.
She kept detailed journal entries about her experience from which you read that similar to the coronavirus, everyone was learning in real-time. The doctors, nurses, therapists and scientists were in a continual process of discovery, working to identify new ways to best help patients while waiting for a vaccine. Reading her words provides a clear look and feel into the mind and heart of a young teenage girl enduring an extraordinary challenge caused by a terrible virus, full of uncertainty for what would lie ahead.
Upon being diagnosed by their Spanish Fork doctor, her parents took her to Salt Lake City. They were in such a hurry they were pulled over for speeding. As the story goes, my grandfather told the policeman that he was taking his daughter into Salt Lake because she had polio. The policeman immediately told him that he would escort them the rest of the way to the hospital.
Temporary polio isolation units, like those we’ve seen erected in some coronavirus hot spots, were common in many cities throughout the United States. She was taken to the Salt Lake County Hospital polio isolation ward that was located on the corner of 2100 South and State Street where the Salt Lake County Administrative offices are today. Like the concern for contagion today, she had to dispose of all her belongings and any visits were severely limited or not allowed.
For a young girl, the isolation and paralysis were overwhelming. She wrote that she could hardly sleep very much during the night. Yet, she noticed a burning light bulb in the hallway that became a comfort to her and as she described, “taught me how important light is in lifting our spirits. It gave me something to focus on instead of the pain.” The coronavirus has created isolation for both the sick and the healthy, forcing all of us to look for greater light to get us through these hard times.
Like COVID, polio greatly affected the lungs. Outside her door sat an iron lung, a great big tank 6 feet long on legs, open at one end. The nurse would slide a patient in, feet-first, on a stretcher, and the whole body would be enclosed, except for the head. The iron lung helped the polio patient to breathe. Fortunately, she never needed it, but dozens of other patients there did, some never fully regaining the ability to breathe on their own and eventually dying.
Polio was around for centuries but didn’t reach pandemic proportions until the early to mid-1900s, and a vaccine wasn’t developed until 1955. We are fortunate that vaccines have been developed so quickly for the coronavirus. We can learn a lot from the stories of polio survivors, like my mother, who lived through an earlier pandemic, and despite all the death and suffering, became strong and resilient human beings.