A boomer remembers the Salk vaccine for polio

For most baby boomers, Covid-19 isn’t the first pandemic, and a Covid-19 vaccine won’t be the first vaccine we’ve been given to stop the spread. From White Plains, New York, writer Lucy Iscaro looks back on the first shot she got to stay healthy.

In the mid-1950s I hated needles. That didn’t prevent my parents from signing me up to get the Salk polio vaccine, along with hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of other little kids.

When I look back on that, it reminds me that one of the good things about getting older— and yes, there are good things about it— is that I’ve acquired a perspective on the future from my perspective on the past. I am trying to stay healthy during this horrendous pandemic now as I recall that awful polio virus and how it affected my life as a child.

In the early 1950’s, there were more than 20,000 cases of polio each year. After polio vaccination began in 1955, cases dropped significantly. By 1960, the number of polio cases dropped to about 3,000, and by 1979 there were only about 10.

The bad news is, my parents back then weren’t as well informed as we are today. The good news is, they weren’t as cynical. They had complete faith in the medical professionals, the government, and the school system. When I brought home the letter from school announcing the availability of a free polio preventative, they immediately signed their permission on the dotted line. They were sure it would be safe and reliable. My protests were waved away: “Don’t be silly. It’s for your own good. You don’t want to get polio, do you?”

Polio, or poliomyelitis, was a frightening disease. Caused by the poliovirus, it was spread from person to person, especially during the summer months when children happily splashed in pools and congregated at camps. It could infect the spinal cord, causing paralysis. I had seen children in metal leg braces and was horrified to hear about people who needed a contraption called an iron lung to breathe for them.

Polio vaccinations in the 1950s.

One morning a few weeks after the letter came, the routines of second grade were interrupted. In a quivering phalanx of nervous kids, I joined my classmates from Public School 162 in New York City’s Bayside Queens. The line spanned two stories of our building towards the gym. When it was my turn, I saw that the varnished floor reflected folding screens, tables, and what seemed to me to be an army of grown-ups in white coats. To this day, the scent of alcohol swabs brings me back to the chill of the doctor’s hand and the sound of the nurse’s voice as she lied, “It won’t hurt.”

Today, I lack my late parents’ brand of unquestioning confidence in the professionals who will be distributing this new vaccine. When it comes to wondering if it’s advisable to take the shot, I would paraphrase what they said to me all those years ago: “It’s for your own good. You don’t want to get Covid-19, do you?”

Lucy Iscaro

The Covid-19 vaccine should be available very soon. Like every baby boomer and virtually every human being alive, I am relieved to glimpse a shaft of light coming through the dark Coronavirus tunnel. But, before we all let out our collective breath— behind a mask please— there is the real conundrum of who gets the vaccine first and how it will be distributed.

The vast majority of pundits say the first priority should be the millions of health care workers who are keeping the rest of us alive and the millions of people living in nursing homes and other care facilities, who are more vulnerable than anyone else. I and my fellow boomers who are in good health will probably not have access for months.

Eventually, we will get it. Until then, we have to keep our perspective on the future from our perspective on the past.

25 Comments

  1. Lucy, such an important piece and reminder of health care issues from the past. I could feel your trepidation and smell that alcohol. Nicely done!

      1. Lucy: A nice read to start the morning. I remember thehallways at Peshine Ave. School well. The other day daughter Sarah was talking about the Smallpox inoculation. “It’s all for our benefit.” l The sooner the better. Very nice memory.
        Regards, Sam

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspectives.
    The brave little girl who made things better for someone else and now a writer doing the same thing.

  3. Lucy. Such a great example of healthcare through time. I love your story of the childhood experience and I remember mine. My sister’s mil, still alive had polio and has always walked with a limp.

  4. I remember that time so well during the Polio scare. My mother took us away for the summer. We couldn’t swim in the public pool or go to the movies. The vaccine changed all that. Such an important story Lucy.

    1. Thanks for sharing your memories Linda. I hope that someday our grandchildren will talk about how a simple vaccine changed their lives and let them ditch their masks.

  5. You shared the fears and feelings of each time period so well, Lucy. I love reading your pieces! Well done!

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