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Dec. 4, 2020

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Debilitating disease forges strong friendship

Polio's crippling effects still echo in lives of two women 60 years later

By , Columbian Health Reporter
Published:

What is polio?

Polio is a contagious viral illness. In its most severe form, polio can cause paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The majority of people infected with the polio virus don’t get sick. In same cases, people develop nonparalytic polio, which causes symptoms similar to the flu and other viral illnesses, such as fever, headache, fatigue, pain or stiffness in the neck, back, arms or legs and muscle weakness.

In rare cases, the infection leads to paralytic polio, the most serious form of the disease. The polio virus invades the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis, loss of reflexes and severe muscle aches.

And for some, the effects of the virus last a lifetime.

Post-polio syndrome is a cluster of disabling signs and symptoms that affect some people several years — an average of 35 years — after they had polio. Common signs of post-polio syndrome include progressive muscle or joint weakness and pain, general fatigue, muscle atrophy, concentration and memory problems, breathing and swallowing problems and sleep-related breathing disorders, according to the Mayo Clinic.

There is no cure for polio. Vaccination is the best way to protect against the virus and the only way to stop the disease from spreading, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is polio?

Polio is a contagious viral illness. In its most severe form, polio can cause paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The majority of people infected with the polio virus don't get sick. In same cases, people develop nonparalytic polio, which causes symptoms similar to the flu and other viral illnesses, such as fever, headache, fatigue, pain or stiffness in the neck, back, arms or legs and muscle weakness.

In rare cases, the infection leads to paralytic polio, the most serious form of the disease. The polio virus invades the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis, loss of reflexes and severe muscle aches.

And for some, the effects of the virus last a lifetime.

Post-polio syndrome is a cluster of disabling signs and symptoms that affect some people several years -- an average of 35 years -- after they had polio. Common signs of post-polio syndrome include progressive muscle or joint weakness and pain, general fatigue, muscle atrophy, concentration and memory problems, breathing and swallowing problems and sleep-related breathing disorders, according to the Mayo Clinic.

There is no cure for polio. Vaccination is the best way to protect against the virus and the only way to stop the disease from spreading, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The last case of naturally occurring polio in the U.S. happened in 1979. Global eradication efforts began in 1988, but polio transmission continues in other countries, including Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to the CDC.

The last case of naturally occurring polio in the U.S. happened in 1979. Global eradication efforts began in 1988, but polio transmission continues in other countries, including Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to the CDC.

Did you know?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends four doses of the polio vaccine for children, with doses at 2 months, 4 months, 6-18 months and a booster at 4-6 years.

In May, the World Health Organization declared the international spread of polio to be a public health emergency of international concern. As a result, the CDC recommended an additional polio booster for anyone traveling for more than four weeks to 10 countries: Cameroon, Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria.

Susan Wickersham still remembers the summer weekend in 1954 that forever changed her life.

She was 8 years old and living in Miami. Her parents suspected she had come down with a summer cold. Nevertheless, she went outside to ride her bike, but she couldn’t get her legs to work the pedals.

The next morning, Wickersham awoke to her mother hanging clothes on the line outside. She got out of bed and headed toward the front door.

“I collapsed in the hallway and couldn’t move,” she said.

At the Variety Children’s Hospital — which was later renamed Miami Children’s Hospital — Wickersham learned it wasn’t a summer cold slowing her down. It was paralytic polio.

Wickersham, 68, contracted the contagious virus at a time when polio infections were surging in the U.S. In the 1940s and 1950s, polio was crippling 35,000 people per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There is no cure for polio, and the polio vaccine was not yet available in 1954.

Now, 60 years later, the Ridgefield woman is suffering from post-polio syndrome, a cluster of disabling symptoms that affect some people several years (an average of 35 years) after they had polio, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Wickersham’s legs never worked properly after she contracted polio. She required crutches to get around. But three years ago, the muscle atrophy in her legs reached the point that the crutches weren’t enough. Now, she relies on a motorized wheelchair.

“I can’t walk more than 20 or 30 steps without my legs feeling like jelly,” Wickersham, 68, said. “I’m just devastated about it.”

Polio patient

When the 8-year-old Wickersham arrived at the hospital, she was taken from her parents. Nurses stripped the clothes from her body and held her down while doctors performed a spinal tap to rule out meningitis.

Then she was placed in a crib in an isolation room, where she remained alone for two weeks until her parents were allowed to visit.

She was later moved to a room with five other girls her age with polio. There, she met Joan Hester, who was 6 years old at the time. Hester and her 9-year-old brother, John Huddleston, were both hospitalized with polio.

Hester’s brother was in a separate unit and placed in an iron lung. The tank respirator kept him breathing as the virus paralyzed the muscles in his chest. He was hospitalized six months before being released, confined to a wheelchair. He died 14 years later, at age 23, after contracting pneumonia.

Hester had a less severe case of polio. Her left arm was the only part of her body affected and was kept in a sling for months.

While in the hospital, both girls were confined to beds. At the foot of their beds, tennis shoes were attached to a piece of wood. Their feet were laced into those shoes. Sandbags were draped over their legs to keep them in place.

“How archaic,” Hester said. “It was like medicine was in the dark ages.”

For one month, as the virus destroyed the muscles in her legs, Wickersham remained flat on her back in that bed. Finally, she began physical therapy, mostly stretching and hot packs.

Hester often used her one good arm to free herself from the shoes and move about the unit, bringing the other girls comic books for entertainment. She would also sneak visits to her brother’s room.

Wickersham was in the hospital for three months before she was released. Hester left the hospital after one month. The girls’ families became friends. Wickersham and Hester, who now lives in Maryville, Tenn., have remained friends.

Did you know?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends four doses of the polio vaccine for children, with doses at 2 months, 4 months, 6-18 months and a booster at 4-6 years.

In May, the World Health Organization declared the international spread of polio to be a public health emergency of international concern. As a result, the CDC recommended an additional polio booster for anyone traveling for more than four weeks to 10 countries: Cameroon, Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria.

“Nobody else understands quite like somebody else who walked in those shoes,” Hester said.

Wickersham was released from the hospital with crutches and her legs in full braces. She then developed scoliosis, which required two surgeries to correct.

When she was about 12 years old, doctors performed muscle transplants on Wickersham’s legs. They replaced atrophied muscles with healthy muscle from other parts of her leg. She also underwent spinal fusions.

“I call myself the human guinea pig,” she said.

Post-polio syndrome

Despite all of the procedures and physical impacts, Wickersham said she has lived an active life.

She married her husband, Ed, 46 years ago and was able to walk down the aisle without her crutches. They had twin boys, Jeff and Tim, who are now grown, with families of their own.

But today, 60 years after contracting the virus, Wickersham is experiencing the long-term effects of the devastating infection and subsequent treatments.

Wickersham has circulation problems in her legs that doctors attribute to the muscle transplants. She has had thyroid cancer and breast cancer, which she suspects were caused by the radiation from countless X-rays while she was hospitalized.

The muscles in her legs are atrophied, the once-healthy muscles worn from overcompensating for the damaged muscles. She has lost leg strength and the ability to walk. The muscles in her right hand are also atrophied.

“I still have dreams that I’m normal,” Wickersham said, “whatever normal is.”

Hester is also suffering from the effects of post-polio syndrome.

Her hands shake from the virus attacking her nervous system, and she often needs her husband, Don, to help her with fine motor tasks. She has spinal stenosis causing severe pain. She can’t sit, stand or lay for too long without the pain becoming unbearable.

“I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone,” Hester said.

“Your whole world changes,” she added.

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