My Mother’s Fight against Polio, and her Passion for Preventing Disease
A year and a half ago, I co-wrote this blog with my mom about her fight against polio and how it has made her a powerful advocate for immunization. Her words are just as true today as ever: “If people don’t get vaccinated, those diseases [from the past] will come back, and they will take lives. The fight against these diseases is never over.” And her words are more important to me today than ever, as I prepare for the birth of my first child in a month. Once he arrives, I’ll make sure he gets all of the recommended vaccines - on schedule - to give him the best possible protection against preventable diseases. Since he can’t get some of those vaccines until he is a few months old (or older), I’ll be relying on everyone else to get their vaccines in the meantime and protect him through herd immunity.
It was over fifty years ago now, but my mother Susan can still recall that dark, concrete hospital ward at what was then known as the Cincinnati General Hospital. At just six years old, she found herself in a white bed partitioned off from her neighbors by glass. On her left, a young man in an iron lung; on her right, a baby who wouldn’t stop screaming. She remembers falling dangerously ill in the summer of 1960 during a road trip to Williamsburg, Virginia with her family, and remembers the ensuing days of indescribable pain.
My mother had been in the hospital for two or three days before a short man with white hair came to visit her. That man, Dr. Albert B. Sabin, was on his way overseas when he heard word of my mother’s suspected case of polio. He immediately cancelled his flight and rushed to see my mother at what is now known as the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine – the very place where he developed the oral polio vaccine several years earlier.
My mother recognized Dr. Sabin right away from seeing him on television. That was when she learned that she had polio.
At this point in 1960, Dr. Sabin’s oral polio vaccine had been so effective in Cincinnati that new cases had all but halted. Dr. Sabin was meticulous about tracking down every last case of polio in the city – therefore, my mother’s case was of heightened interest to him.
Dr. Sabin diagnosed my mother with polio on the spot. She was one of the last children in Cincinnati to be diagnosed – and to suffer the devastating consequences of the disease. At the time, my mother was in the middle of a vaccine regimen but was exposed to the disease before the immunizations were able to fully protect her.
Polio has caused my mother significant physical suffering- the muscles in her left leg are underdeveloped, and she must walk with a brace. Yet, she has stood strong in the face of adversity, and her hard work and passion for preventing disease is unwavering. She has worked for more than 30 years as a nurse in a hospital recovery room, where she strives to provide her patients with the care and dignity they deserve. As a polio patient, my mother was isolated and stigmatized – an experience she would never wish on anyone else.
As you can imagine, in addition to working in the healthcare field, my mother is also a vaccine advocate. Having suffered from a disease that is now vaccine-preventable, she truly understands the value of vaccines and the power they have to save lives.
Just the other day she told me:
“I had polio and could have died. Just a few years earlier, my brother had mumps- and he could have died too. People forget how scary vaccine-preventable diseases were before vaccines were available. And if people don’t get vaccinated, those diseases will come back, and they will take lives. The fight against these diseases is never over- we must continue to vaccinate to ensure that no one dies from a something terrible that could have been prevented.”
My mother’s story has inspired me to pursue a career in public health. Over the past 10 years, I have managed and implemented a number of infectious disease prevention programs. I currently work for the Sabin Vaccine Institute (Sabin), which was founded on the legacy and global vision of Dr. Albert B. Sabin. As a Senior Program Officer for the International Association for Immunization Managers (IAIM), I support an international network of immunization managers– the public health professionals in each country who are responsible for ensuring that vaccines reach their population. These dedicated public health professionals work day in and day out to ensure that no child suffers from a vaccine-preventable disease like polio.
Immunization is widely recognized as one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions, and it prevents between 2 and 3 million deaths every year. This World Immunization Week, my mother and I are proud to join partners around the world in signaling a renewed global, regional and national effort to accelerate action to increase awareness and demand for immunization by communities, and improve vaccination delivery services.
This blog was originally posted on April 27, 2015.