Snap Tales

“Pandemic”

by Ken Hupila
When I was young I would listen to my folks talk about growing up, and heard about things that they lived through that I had only read about. Stories about The Depression, before electricity came to the farm, WWII, my Dad using a chain saw for the first time, mobsters that would hide out in the northwoods – all kinds of great stuff! It seemed so distant and long ago, I felt they had grown up and “Lived History”. Little did I know that at my present age, I’ve lived a bit of history myself.
I was part of the Baby Boomer generation that saw post WWII prosperity and the rise of the middle class. I knew a world before there was a TV in every home, before computers and with a party line phone where a voice would ask “number please” when you lifted the receiver. I remember the night the Bay of Tonkin helped lead us into the Viet Nam War and I listened with my classmates when Alan Shepard made the first trip into space for the U.S. I never saw my parents as concerned as when they were closely watching the news during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The assassination of John Kennedy followed by the killings of his brother Robert and Dr. King changed the psyche of this country forever. I listened to Fibber McGee and Molly, Abbott and Costello, Jack Benny and Bob Hope on the radio along with a kid called Elvis and the Beatles. Cars were a lot simpler (and less expensive) and flying on a plane was something only rich people did.
I also lived at a time when health care was much different. It was available to everyone and for a reasonable cost. Somewhere in the archives I have the bill my folks received for doctor, hospital stay and medications that they were charged when I was born. It is somewhere between 25 and 30 dollars – which included a five day stay at the hospital for my mom. Of course in today’s dollars it would be more, but it was still an amount that anyone could afford. That said, many people died because we didn’t have the means to save them. Penicillin was only about twenty years old and was the only anti-biotic developed for a long time. No open heart surgery had been successful up to this time and transplant procedures were still in their infancy. Pre-mature babies had hardly a chance and cancer was still a tragic mystery. One thing that I’ve thought about a lot – and it still amazes me – is that vaccines weren’t developed before my lifetime. The immune response was hinted at early on when people who were exposed to “cowpox” seemed to be immune to “smallpox” – and yet the mechanism was not understood. WWII provided many of the beginnings of the answer when skin grafting of downed pilots were accepted on the second go around after the body had rejected initial grafts.
My grandparents talked about the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Indeed, there were relatives and friends who had perished because of it. My grandfather described on how riding the rails during his early years in this country he had worn a braided necklace of garlic to ward off the disease. He didn’t contract it, but whether it was because of the medicinal effects of the garlic or because people were loath to get close to him was never established. In History class we learned of the “Black Plague” that reduced the entire population of the globe - estimated by some sources as nearly in half.
Polio was a devastating disease that took many lives and changed the futures of even more. Between 13,000 and 20,000, mostly children, were paralyzed annually. I remember people who had to spend their days in an “iron lung”. Others were only able to get around in wheel chairs. Franklin Roosevelt was a President who died only seven years before I was born and lived his life with polio’s effect for almost his entire adult life. There was no cure. Some were affected more severely than others. There was great fear among the populace and regional outbreaks and quarantines were common.
Polio came to Balsam in the fall of 1959. I was in first grade and one of my classmates was Bobby Ryan. Bobby’s older brother Jimmy had polio. Now, Balsam Elementary was a rural school that hosted six grades and in a good year might have 55 students within its walls. To watch Jimmy was to watch the rest of America. Tens of thousands of the population suffered from this terrible disease. To have a person in our small community in northern Minnesota, unfortunately, was not surprising.
Jimmy wore heavy braces on both legs, clear to the hip. He walked with crutches that encircled his upper arms. As he moved from one part of the building or playground to another he would have to swing his legs alternately in sync with his crutches. Often he would fall. Door jams would trip him. Uneven ground was a nightmare. Yet, as I recall Jimmy was a happy kid. Always a smile and a quick laugh, and independent as could be. He not only didn’t ask for help, he wouldn’t accept it. To get through the big heavy doors going into the school, he wouldn’t let anyone hold them for him. If he fell, he insisted on getting up on his own. His brother was the only one he would allow to help carry books or other necessities. He would spend some of his summer vacation time at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis. Besides pioneering physical therapy to combat the effects of the disease, they also advocated the independence that he so bravely showed.
The year 1959 also brought another aspect of polio to the Balsam School. An exciting new prevention tool was being tested and promoted throughout the country – polio vaccine. The field of medicine was only starting to decode the immune response and the Salk and Sabin vaccines were the first to take wholesale advantage of this new understanding. As a first grader, we were part of the vanguard of the vaccination revolution. We had to take two doses for it to work. The first we took at the Balsam School when the district nurse came and passed out sugar cubes with the vaccine. For our second dose, a big yellow school bus (the first I’d seen) picked us up and brought us to the school in Bigfork. We were brought to the gym and lined up to get an injection. I distinctly remember liking the sugar cube more! That was it. The thinking was this would prevent the vaccine recipients from getting polio. And, they were right.
It worked so well, that polio has almost been wiped from the face of the earth. Only in places where vaccinations are not readily available do a few cases pop up every year. There is much debate about vaccines and immunizations now. I can only believe that those who fight against it certainly didn’t live in a world before they were available and used. I didn’t understand how important being a part of that history was at the time. I’m certainly proud of that now.
We are living in trying times again. The numbers and news coverage certainly suggest that this may rival some of the historic pandemics of old. And yet, as with all the others we will see an end, though at what cost has yet to be determined. Out of all the darkness of negativity surrounding us there are daily examples of the brightness of humanity. Neighbors helping neighbors. Humor and helpful ideas through social media to lift our spirits. Corporations and businesses stepping up to not only innovate, but shoulder some of the burden. With hope we will go forward with knowledge that will lessen, if not prevent, a future pandemic such as this one.
Oh and by the way, on April 12, 1955, Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk “who owned the patent to the polio vaccine?” “Well, the people, I would say,” Salk responded. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” He gave this as a gift to the world. Should we all be in a position to do the same?