By Janice Flood Nichols
As a polio survivor, I want to tell you a story—a story that I hope will persuade you to vaccinate your children against polio whether your children ever travel beyond our shores or not.
Parents of children born soon after WWII were terrified of polio. They adhered to all of the public health directives: Don’t allow your children to swim in public pools. Don’t allow your children to attend large public gatherings. Encourage frequent hand washing, adequate sleep, and a healthy diet. But, in the end, all parents knew that their children remained vulnerable—and the epidemics were getting worse.
My family’s polio ordeal began in fall 1953. For starters, it was not a typical time of year for a polio outbreak. Historically, most epidemics in our country occurred during the sultry days of summer. Within just a few days, eight children in our first grade classroom of twenty-four had been admitted to City Hospital in Syracuse, NY with a diagnosis of polio. Within twenty days, thirteen residents of our suburb had been admitted to the hospital.
My twin brother Frankie had been battling a minor head cold for a few days. The day before Halloween, Frankie suddenly found it very difficult to breathe. He was rushed to City Hospital and was given a spinal tap to determine whether he had polio or meningitis. He was immediately placed in an iron lung. A diagnosis of polio was confirmed by the next morning. Due to my twin’s critical condition, I was given multiple (20) shots of gamma globulin up and down both legs and arms with an additional shot in the buttock. Gamma globulin is a blood component containing antibodies that was demonstrated to sometimes lessen or prevent a serious case of the disease.
On the next night, Frankie died en route to the operating room where he was to have a tracheostomy tube inserted. Frankie could not swallow—he was literally drowning in his own secretions. My father was able to accompany Frankie toward the operating suite. Dad cradled his only son as best he could while hampered by the fact that the only part of Frankie’s body that remained outside the iron lung was his head and neck. Frankie’s death occurred sixty-one hours after admission to the hospital.
I was admitted to the hospital on the night that Frankie was buried; later on that week my mother suffered a miscarriage. The physicians told my parents that they felt that the gamma globulin shots probably saved my life…
In the end, three children died including my beautiful twin brother, Frankie. The two other children who died were sisters and when they finally succumbed following years of complications related to polio, the parents were left childless. Two paralyzed children made complete recoveries with the aid of intensive therapy and the support of family and friends. I’m one of those children. I was reunited with the other child in fall 2010 – what a reunion!
What happened to our family was not an isolated incident. Families throughout the world suffered similar tragedies before the licensure of the polio vaccine. For that reason, my parents readily allowed my participation as a “Polio Pioneer’ in the 1954 Salk Polio Vaccine Trial (licensed 1955).
I fought long and hard to walk again and to come to terms with Frankie’s death. Today, I am a woman and mother who remains determined to do everything I can to prevent other people from contracting polio.
Although the incidence of polio has been decreased by 99%, polio remains the world’s greatest crippler with between ten to twenty million people suffering from the acute or chronic effects of polio. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative now predicts that if eradication is not completed within the next few years, we will lose our last best chance to rid the world of polio and that by mid-century more than ten million children could be paralyzed by a disease that can be completely prevented by vaccination.
Please do not believe those who say that you can protect your children, without vaccination, through a healthy life style. The children of the 1953 DeWitt, NY polio epidemic were like our children—healthy, rambunctious kids whose lives (and those of their parents) were changed in an instant.
For more on Janice and Frankie’s Story visit www.twinvoices.com.