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Paralysis, pain and iron lungs: Why parents once dreaded polio season

Folks of a certain age talk about polio with a sense of dread.

For many years, the disease was poorly understood but summer was known to be polio season.

About three in four polio cases do not have any visible symptoms.

In more severe cases, poliomyelitis appears with flu-like symptoms and the most serious cases move from the gut to the spinal cord or brain.

Partial or complete paralysis can result. Some patients were confined inside an iron lung after losing the ability to draw in a breath of air.

Many patients recovered partially or completely, only to have symptoms resurface later in life as post-polio syndrome.

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This March 2, 1963, Telegram Tribune classified advertising section featured a reminder to raise money for polio vaccine. Telegram-Tribune

Though vaccinations are a topic of debate today, there is no denying worldwide eradication efforts have been effective. Since 1988, polio cases have decreased 99%.

By 2017, there were only three people in the United States still using the iron lung. Advances in respiratory therapy and the eradication of polio made them obsolete.

Polio still strikes in areas with poor sanitation and weak public health systems. like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; 33 polio cases worldwide were reported in 2018. The World Health Organization says that without aggressive measures to contain polio the number of cases would quickly return to the thousands.

According to a January 6, 1949, Telegram-Tribune story, there were 17 infantile paralysis (another name for polio) cases treated in San Luis Obispo County in 1948.

In July 1948, San Luis Obispo County got its first iron lung in dramatic fashion. The first case of the season prompted the machine to be delivered in a dramatic five-hour drive from Oakland under escort of the CHP.

A few years later, an Arroyo Grande woman, Mrs. Robert A. Vogel, wrote a story about her son.

Billy Vogel was the local representative of the March of Dimes, a charity founded to combat polio and aid families.

This article, published in the Telegram-Tribune on Jan. 16, 1951, is excerpted for length:

Arroyo Mother Tells Story of Polio

Billy was eight years old, one of those lively, mischievous youngsters that can’t be still a moment. He was always running and jumping, always finding new things to do.

But polio did strike. It struck with the suddenness and horror that it had to so many people that I had read about in the newspapers.

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Ten-year-old Billy Vogel, son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Vogel of Grover City dropping the first local contribution into a 1951 March of Dimes canister in the annual polio fund drive. Telegram-Tribune

Billy first became ill July 17, 1948. He had been feeling badly all day, he had a headache and his stomach was up[set. The whole family had been ill in the same way at different intervals for almost three weeks and I had put it down as a summer flu. Billy didn’t get over it as fast as the rest of us, and I was worried about him.

I put him to bed and gave him an aspirin to ease his headache. Later in the evening Billy was feeling much better and he was able to eat a light supper. His temperature had almost returned to normal.

The following day Billy got up to go to the bathroom, but before he got half way there, his legs collapsed under him.

We realized then that our boy was seriously ill, and we didn’t need more than one guess what was wrong with him. I called our doctor and he came out to the house immediately. He gave Billy a reflex check and we took him to the hospital right away.

The next three days were an eternity of misery and grief. I was in a complete daze as far as home life was concerned.

I was very fortunate to have my mother visiting us at the time and she took charge of everything at home.

I spent most of my time outside my son’s window, for even though I was his mother, I was not allowed inside the isolation ward. It is one of the most heart-breaking experiences there is to stand on the outside of your sick child’s window and listen to him whimper and cry with pain and not be able to even look at him for fear that he will see your and cry out to you to come to him.

On the evening of the third day, the doctor told me that there was very little hope that Billy would live through the night. The paralysis had crept up both legs, through his organs, both arms and was slowly creeping up his left side trying to envelop his heart. When the doctor left me I went out on the stone steps of the hospital and prayed to God that he let my son live. It had been such a long time since I had prayed, but I guess we never forget how to ask Him favors.

Four o’clock the next morning, the hospital called us on the phone and told us that an iron lung had been rushed down from Oakland, and Billy had been placed in it. When I got there the doctor had very good news for me — Billy had passed the crisis, the paralysis had been checked, and his temperature was slowly receding.

Have you ever had a child say to you, “Mother, I itch and sting all over, but I can’t scratch because my hands are tied down.” Have him say that when you knew his hands weren’t tied down — they were paralyzed.

Billy was sent to Children’s Hospital of the East Bay in Oakland. He spent 10 months up there, during which time he had the best of care. Hot packs, muscle building exercises, drugs to relax tight and painful muscles, occupational therapy, good food and ever so many other things too numerous to mention. All this was paid for by the local polio foundation with the money that you and I, and our neighbor donated during the previous March of Dimes campaigns.

This year he is much improved over last year. And who but God knows what next year will bring!

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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”
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