Reader’s voice Marcia Burick: Polio and the COVID-19 virus: Taking it personally

  • Northampton resident Marcia Burick reflects on her experience getting polio during the polio epidemic in the summers of 1951-53. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 4/2/2020 4:16:21 PM

“There’s never been anything like this before.”

Well, yes there has. The fear of serious illness, the randomness of it all, the mystery of why it happened, when will it ever end, will there be after effects? All this talk of ventilators and respirators, and the need to find more. For me, this has triggered a memory from long ago, 66 years ago, in fact, to September of 1953.

I dreamed about that time just the other night. I’m in a narrow tunnel. It’s dark and I’m sliding down to the end. Then the tunnel opens and there’s a light on the other side. My polio dream of long ago; I’d thought it had finally gone away.

The most popular song of the day was “I Love Paris” in the springtime. Cole Porter wrote it for the Broadway play “Can Can, ” and it played everywhere: in record stores, in restaurants, and even on the radio at the nurses’ station, Station F, at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, the polio ward, but they didn’t call it that. Station F was enough. And how that song played, over and over again many times during the day and night.

I still have that song in my head now, but not the way you would. Ihear it with the deep breathing sounds of the large iron lung that encased my body — “I love Paris” ... breathe in ... “in the springtime” ... breathe out ... “I love Paris in the fall.”

I was only in that large breathing machine for 12 days. Though I had fever and was in a fog much of the time, I think I heard that song at least 60 times. Then I was out in a rocking bed across the hall, still able to hear the breathing from the other iron lungs, and then I was in a regular bed. And then it was my 13th birthday.

My parents, no one’s parents, were allowed to come in. Nurses, aides, doctors were in and out, covered from head to toe in white or blue gowns, and masks, and shower-like caps and plastic booties. They wore all this when they came in the room, and when they left, they put it all in a basket by the door.

Protective personal gear. I hadn’t heard that term again until this cornovirus pandemic.

I remember a group of doctors coming in and surrounding the bed. There were four of them, but I was seeing double then, so I saw eight. It’s OK, the kind nurse told me later. “Just pretend they’re ice cream cones, and now you’ll have twice as much.”

We were all so afraid of the polio epidemic in the summers of 1951-53. Rich parents from my town sent their kids to fancy camps in Maine or Wisconsin; poorer kids beat out the heat by opening fire hydrants on the streets.

My group of public school friends, just out of seventh grade, did something in between. A group of eight of us went to a community center sleepaway camp outside of nearby Cincinnati. It was great; we rowed boats and swam in the Little Miami River, learned to do archery, played girls softball and flirted with the 16-year-old junior counselors. We were safe. Or so we all thought.

And then my father had the Cincinnati Public Health Department shut down the camp. How embarrassing. He’d been the volunteer chairman of the Montgomery County, Ohio, chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis campaign for years, hosting numerous fundraisers with music and sports stars from all over, and speaking to every group he could about the need to stamp out polio.

And my mother organized all of Dayton’s Mother’s Porch Light Parade against polio from our dining room table, where people came in every day for weeks to get their neighborhood assignments to go door to door to raise more money for medical research. “You never know where polio will strike,” my father would say.

But then it struck, with three cases in my camp before the Health Department came in at my father’s urging and emptied the entire place in one afternoon. The eight of us came back to Dayton and, because we had connections (yes, even then that came into play), our parents spent those first 24 hours back in town arguing with the Dayton Public Health Board to allow our group of exposed kids to be allowed to get eight of their precious and limited supply of newly-approved gamma globulin. It was not a vaccine, not a cure, but hopefully a deterrent; something that could limit the effects of the dreaded polio if any of us were to get it.

“We might need it if there’s an outbreak here,” a member of that board argued. “These kids could cause that outbreak,” the parents argued back. At nine at night they approved the request, and we all gathered with our families at a doctor’s office to get the shots, bravely singing camp songs as we took our turn with a very large needle.

Our families were told to take us home, limit our contacts with people outside the house (none of us really did that), and keep mindful of the polio warning signs. We all had learned those in school over the past few years — sore throat, stiff neck, nausea, trouble swallowing.

A week later, I was the one among all of us who got it. Bulbar spinal polio. Breathe in — the respirator, the ventilator, the iron lung does it for you. Breathe out. “I love Paris...”

It didn’t seem so then, but I was a lucky girl. I’d had the privilege of the gamma globulin. No permanent paralysis. Many of my Station F fellow patients at Miami Valley Hospital were not so fortunate in that year of the epidemic.

The next year, 1954, the Salk vaccine was tested and approved, and Dayton even became a testing site because the city had raised as much or more money toward polio research than perhaps any other city of its size. My dad, a sportswriter, had brought in the Cleveland Browns football team to play a benefit basketball game, in winter of 1954, against little Rio Grande College and its star phenomenon, Bevo Francis, who’d scored 113 points in just one game that season.

The University of Dayton donated the use of the UD Field House, and the stands were packed with generous people from all over the area who pledged to donate a whole lot of money per basket to the Polio Foundation.. I had a great seat on the floor just behind the Browns, and cheered for them and also for every point Bevo made. The crowd went wild and cheered even more when, in the last minutes of the game, Bevo and his teammates picked up famed Browns’ placekicker Lou Groza, known as “Lou the Toe” — not exactly built for basketball — and hoisted him on their shoulders in front of the basket and handed him the ball over and over again to drop in the basket. Those good people who’d pledged an amazing amount of money per basket honored their commitments.

When it was over, my father stood at midcourt, thanked everyone, and said: “You never know where polio will strike..” and then said, “even at our house.” I never wanted to be a poster child, but it was a great line, and a great night.

I didn’t talk about this for a very long time. I didn’t want to be ever known as a “polio victim,” as people often referred to those who were “stricken.” Many years later, when I worked in Mayor Dave Musante’s office in Northampton City Hall, one of my duties was to organize and staff the first Handicapped Services Committee, as it was called then.

I got to know well several members of the committee who had been through my similar experience. We fought together for the Americans with Disabilities Act, for access for all, for awareness of how to make it easier for people with all kinds of impairments to get around. We brought to Northampton the Smithsonian traveling exhibit, “What It’s Like to be Different,” and just like the people of Dayton, members of our community rallied around. Gordy Thorne donated the space, and every fifth and sixth grader in the city came to the exhibit.

We don’t know yet when the coronavirus will peak, and when it will mercifully flatten, and if there will be lasting effects. I wish for all those who are suffering that they will receive the full medical care, government support, private generosity, follow-up services and just plain love that I received in that polio year of 1953.

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