POLIO. The word exploded from my friend’s lips and frightened my young heart into a gallop. My stomach churned. I felt dazed as he told me of the horror that had invaded our little neighborhood street.
POLIO! During the night the deadly crippler had struck at two homes, side by side. Invisible and silent, it had swept through ruthlessly; bring a quick death to a healthy seventeen year old young man and total paralysis to a five year old boy.
As my friend spoke, a ghastly image of the youth, pale and still in death, swirled in my mind. I shook my head, not ready to believe what I was hearing. I had seen him only the day before, strong and tall; smiling with a teenager’s confidence in the joyous promise of life. How could he be dead today? And the little boy – when had I not seen him running and laughing, husky and rosy-cheeked? Now I was to understand that he was hopelessly paralyzed, unmercifully crippled; that he now had to be kept in something called an Iron Lung just to breathe.
POLIO! I was terrified. It was the most fearful thing I had ever heard of. I looked for a sign that my friend was just playing a bad joke on me, as we sometimes did to each other; but I saw that it was no joke, that it was true. All up and down the block solemn-faced people stood in small groups, whispering and wagging heads – nodding occasionally at the two houses of mourning.
POLIO. The electrifying word rang in my ears and sent shivers through my body. I had heard the word before, spoken cautiously by adults; but I hadn’t really understood what it meant – only that it was a kind of sickness. But now, in a few short shock-filled moments I had learned what it could do. Now I understood that it was a powerful word that meant death and paralysis; a word to be feared. I understood and I was consumed with terror. Pallid images of my stricken neighbors flashed neon-like in my mind. I wanted to run to a safe place and hide. But was there such a place? How could I hide from something I couldn’t see or hear or smell?
POLIO. It seemed to lurk everywhere. Perhaps it was lying on the ground, waiting to leap up at me as I passed by. Or maybe it was in the trees, waiting to pounce on me. Or did it pounce? Maybe it just floated around like an invisible mist.
POLIO. The demon word raced around in my mind during that entire day, inhabiting my every thought. I fretted that I too would be stricken and grieved to be spared. Like a new volcano, growling unsuspected deep with the earth, panic mounted within me. When nighttime finally arrived, I eagerly welcomed the security of my bedcovers under which frightened children could take refuge from all dangers. But as I climbed into the twin bed that I shared with my five year old brother, my horror roared back. I suddenly realized that my little brother was close pals with the paralyzed boy and the dead teenager’s five year old nephew.
POLIO! It could be in my very own bed! Now I was sure that I would be the next victim. Each time my sleeping brother stirred toward me, I cringed to the edge of the bed, afraid that his very touch would infect me. I labored to breathe, certain that my lungs would fail at the slightest hesitation. I strained to keep my muscles from stiffening; and struggled to remain awake, dozing only when fatigue overcame me. I awoke each time with a lurch, gasping to renew my breath.
When I arose the next morning, my neck was stiff and my head pounded. Desperate, I swallowed some aspirins. I worked my head around trying to loosen the tightness that I felt in my neck. Neither remedy worked, but I hadn’t really expected that they would. I knew that my headache and stiff neck were only the first signs of my impending doom.
POLIO. The word pulsed in my mind as I walked to school, keeping cadence with every step. POLIO. My joints ached as I entered the classroom. Unlike other days, I took my seat in silence, mesmerized by the paralysis coming over me. The other children chattered on as they did every morning before the teacher arrived, but I didn’t hear their words. Their voices became a loud chant that screamed in my head, “POLIO-POLIO-POLIO.” I felt dazed and my limbs tingled numb. POLIO! Suddenly I was on my feet crying at the top of my voice, “I’VE GOT POLIO!”
My classmates were stunned to silence. The teacher had just entered the room and came quickly to my side. She grasped my shoulders with a gentle firmness and told me that I was alright.
“I’ve got polio,” I whimpered. She nodded her head and said, “Let’s go see the nurse. She put her arm around my waist to bolster me as I stood rigid, afraid to move. She coaxed me to take steps and we slowly made our way the to the nurses’ room. As we moved I discovered that my paralysis was without pain and my fear lessened a bit.
They placed me on a cot in a room next to the nurse’s office. When the teacher left, the nurse came into the room. She smiled and said, “You’re going to be all right; you just need to rest a bit.”
I was comforted by her pleasant manner, but I could see that she didn’t understand that I had polio. “I’ve got polio”, I explained. She smiled again, “Yes, I know. Now close your eyes and rest.” Then she stepped out of the room, leaving the door ajar.
I laid quietly, listening to the muffled sounds that came from her office. The gentle creek of her chair and the soft rustling of papers soon lulled me to sleep.
When I awoke, the remnants of the dream I was having lingered in my mind – visions of crippled bodies and a screeching ghostlike being chasing me down dark streets. As consciousness returned, I discovered that my legs had moved from the rigid place I had held them when she put me on the cot. I sat up and grinned as I examined my fully mobile arms. I wasn’t paralyzed! The nurse came into the room smiling as she watched my discovery unfold. “I’m alright”, I chuckled, “I’m not paralyzed.” She nodded her agreement, “No, Michael, you don’t have polio. You had something that often can be even worse. You had fear, sometimes the most powerful crippler of all.”
My face glowed red with shame as I began to realize what had really happened to me. She took my drooping chin in her soft palm. “There is nothing for you to be ashamed of, Michael. Polio is a very real and fearful thing. You had every reason to be afraid. Everyone knows fear sometime. Some people never get over it.” She squeezed my hand gently, smiling. “You have, Michael. You have gotten over it and now you know that you don’t ever have to let fear take control of you again. Remember what President Roosevelt said – ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’