Editor’s note: This is the final article of a series on how polio affected the lives of those in the community.
By Kristen Miller
In 1952, Americans were in the midst of the worst polio outbreak in the nation’s history, with nearly 58,000 cases reported, according to the Salk Institute For Biological Studies.
That year alone, polio claimed the lives of 3,145 people, and left 21,269 with mild to disabling paralysis.
Within three years, Dr. Jonas Salk became a world-renowned hero for the development of a polio vaccine in 1955, with the support of the March of Dimes. The March of Dimes was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, as he was living with the debilitating condition left by polio.
The World Health Organization estimates there are 10 to 20 million polio survivors around the world.
Here are just a few of their stories.
Ruth Pasqualetto’s story
Ruth (Fredrickson) Pasqualetto had just turned 7 the month prior to being diagnosed with polio, but her memories of that frightening time are still very vivid.
“I remember laying in bed and the doctor coming,” Pasqualetto said.
It was September 1949. She has been staying at her grandparents’ farm in rural Dassel and helping with chores.
All of a sudden, she started getting stiff to where she couldn’t move or bend her limbs. “I couldn’t do the physical things,” she explained.
Polio was the suspect.
Her father drove her to the University of Minnesota, where she tested positive for the polio virus.
The experience was very scary, especially for a young child, she said.
Pasqualetto recalled being taken from her father in order to have a spinal tap done to determine she had polio, after which she was immediately taken to a room where children were undergoing treatment for the virus.
“They didn’t even let me say goodbye to him,” she said, explaining how frightening it was for her.
The room was filled with what she described as “bodies in big tubes,” referring to the metal respiratory contraptions known as iron lungs.
“It was pretty scary . . . when you’re 7, you’re pretty clueless,” she commented.
After about two weeks, she was transferred to Sheltering Arms, an orphanage-turned-hospital in Minneapolis that was caring for young polio patients.
There, she was treated with the Sister Kenny method, which used a combination of hot blankets and physical therapy, a method developed by Elizabeth Kenny, founder of the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, that revolutionized the treatment of polio.
“The exercise was brutal,” she commented.
Because polio caused nerve damage in the spinal cord and/or the brain stem, it caused signs of paralysis in legs, and could also affect the arms, trunk, and diaphragm (and ultimately, respiration).
Though the physical therapy was tough, Pasqualetto said she was fortunate to have the care she had.
“There were a lot of people I knew that had polio, but not many got the care that I did,” she said.
After she was released from nearly a three-month stay in the hospital, Pasqualetto continued to do physical therapy at home. The virus affected the left side of her body with a temporarily paralyzed leg and arm.
Because she contracted polio before the start of the school year, Pasqualetto only attended six weeks of her second grade.
Now, at age 70, she has been experiencing post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects 25 to 40 percent of people who contracted paralytic polio and is identified with new muscle pain and exacerbation of existing weakness, or the development of new weakness or paralysis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 10 years ago, she noticed her leg muscles becoming increasingly weaker, to where sometimes, she has to physically lift them up. Now, she uses a walker to prevent her from falling.
Light exercise, she said, is about all she can do to slow the weakening effects. She is even hearing of people who had only slight cases of polio and are now having symptoms of the syndrome.
“It affects everybody differently,” she said.
Carl Norman shares his family’s story
Sixteen-year-old Pearl Norman of Cokato was the second person in her family to be diagnosed with polio. Her case, however, would turn out to be a fatal one.
Her brother, Carl, was the second-youngest in a family of three daughters.
His sister, Delores, was the first to come down with what appeared to be flu-like symptoms in July 1946. Though she was never hospitalized, she was suspected to have fought off the virus, and recovered in about a week.
A week later, Carl’s sister Pearl came to breakfast. She took a drink of orange juice, but was physically unable to swallow it, and the juice came out of her nose instead. Swelling of the throat is a symptom of bulbar polio.
Carl said she hadn’t been feeling good for a few days, but her mother said this was more than the flu and took her to the Cokato hospital.
There, Dr. Thompson suggested it could be polio, but wanted a second opinion. The Howard Lake doctor agreed with Thompson, and Pearl was taken to Sheltering Arms and treated with the Sister Kenny Method.
This was noon Tuesday, and by 5 p.m. Thursday, Pearl had died from complications of bulbar polio, a more extreme form of polio.
“There was nothing they could do,” Carl commented.
Respiratory paralysis was said to be the immediate cause of her death.
The following Wednesday, both Carl and his other sister, Ruth, came down with a high fever, stiff neck, and nausea.
Carl had been working on a neighboring farm when Ruth was taken to the Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis by their mother. Though there wasn’t any room at the hospital, they made an exception because of the recent loss of Pearl.
Because the paralysis affected her diaphragm and therefore, breathing, Ruth spent four months in an iron lung.
Carl explained that with an iron lung, her whole body was placed in a tank, except for the head, and it would provide pressure to the chest muscles, forcing respiration.
After four months, the doctors took her off the respirator to see how long she could breathe on her own, until gradually she was up to 24 hours.
“We were just delighted to hear the news that she was taking more and more breaths on her own,” he said.
Ruth was able to come home in time for Christmas, but still suffered paralysis and was in need of additional physical therapy.
Carl explained that although she had not regained her strength and mobility, she was released due to the demand for care of polio patients with more severe cases. After four months at home, however, Ruth returned to the hospital for physical therapy.
Due to polio, she missed her entire senior year of high school.
Carl said the March of Dimes was much appreciated for its financial support in helping pay Ruth’s medical bills.
As for Carl, he was taken to Cokato Hospital on the same day as Ruth, but there weren’t any beds available due to the number of polio cases that summer.
Instead, he was given sulfa and penicillin and ordered to go home and stay in bed. Within a few days, his fever subsided, but he would have difficult mobility for the next six weeks.
The whole time he was sick, Carl stated that he wasn’t concerned with the possibility of his own death. The only real trauma he had was dealing with the loss of a sibling.
“The worst thing for me was losing my sister, Pearl. She was the gem of all of us,” Carl said.
Those who recovered from polio still lived with the stigma. “[People] were so afraid they might catch it,” Carl said, though doctors said the virus was no longer transmittable after a week.
Shirley Peterson left paralyzed by polio
For 37 years, Shirley Peterson of Cokato lived with the paralyzing affects of bulbar polio, which she became inflicted with in 1953, at the age of 17. It was the summer before her senior year of high school.
Peterson was one of three children in her family who became infected with polio, including her nephew, Steve Peterson, who had just turned 1; and Peterson’s niece, Kathryn Glessing, who was just shy of 5.
“I remember sitting on the couch and playing with a toy . . . and crying because my legs hurt so much,” Glessing said.
“It was very frightening for our family,” Glessing said, who was hospitalized at Sheltering Arms for more than six weeks.
“When I came out, Shirley was at Sister Kenny,” she added.
Glessing remembers visiting her aunt there, who was one of several patients being treated with iron lungs.
She recalled how Shirley, along with the other polio patients, had a mirror so they could see what was going on around them as their bodies laid in the metal contraptions.
Shirley’s friend, Susie Keskey remembered her talking about losing the use of her limbs.
It was easier for Shirley to accept paralysis as a disease rather than an accident, Glessing recalled her saying.
Shirley returned home from the hospital after 18 months and was confined to a hospital bed and a permanent respirator for the remainder of her life.
The respirator was called a shell and it encircled her chest, to aid in the compression and expansion of the chest and lungs, similar to an iron lung, Glessing explained.
Shirley’s permanent paralysis did not hinder her spirits or prevent her from traveling.
She was able to be off the respirator long enough to be transferred to an ambulance cot, which would allow her to be transported in the family station wagon to restaurants and other locations. The family would later purchase a van to make it even easier for her to travel.
Because her hands were paralyzed, Shirley used a “page-turner” (as the tool was termed), which was about a foot-long plastic tube that she held by her mouth, that had a rubber piece at the end to allow her to turn pages and point to objects. This was how she read and played cards with friEnd Polio Now campaign
Polio remains endemic in three countries Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan and has re-established transmission in three countries which were previously polio-free (Angola, Chad, and Democratic Republic of the Congo). Several more countries had ongoing outbreaks in 2011 due to importations of polio virus, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a partnership led by national governments and spearheaded by World Health Organization, Rotary International, the CDC, and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The Cokato-Dassel Rotary Club is currently accepting donations as part of the Rotary International’s End Polio Now campaign. Donations may be dropped of at the Enterprise Dispatch office, 185 Third Street SW, Cokato.
To donate online, visit the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at www.polioeradication.org.