The Unknown Virus: A Personal Story

San Angelo is in West Texas. The county seat between Abilene and the Mexican border. Farms, oil wells, and cattle ranches fenced with barbed wire dot the county. Blessed with a warm climate and reputation as a healthy place to live, in one year San Angelo added to its reputation in ways that city leaders dreaded.*

In mid-spring, the newspaper reported that a local child had come down with a viral disease that had occurred in earlier springs like hailstorms and tornadoes. Previously, when this disease occurred, it had not spread. This one, however, did.

Parents began arriving at Shannon Memorial Hospital with “feverish, aching youngsters in their arms,” the local newspaper reported. Within days these children died: 10 month-old Esperanza Ramirez, seven year-old Billie Doyle Kleghorn, four year-old Susan Barr, and others. The city health officer said that an epidemic was occurring. Because the disease had no known cause or prevention or cure, he recommended that San Angelo children avoid crowds, wash their hands regularly, and get a lot of rest.

A month later, with known cases spiking to over 60, the city council voted to close all indoor meeting places, including theaters and churches. Tourists stopped coming to the city. The economy shrank. One local doctor said, “We got to the point … when people would not even shake hands.”

The year is 1949, not 2020. The disease is polio, not Covid-19.

I got polio in 1944, five years before the epidemic hits San Angelo. But I was lucky. I came out of the disease with only a limp from a destroyed calf muscle. Amid the fears of the coronavirus today, I can now appreciate in a way that I could not as a ten years-old, the dread of the unknown consequences for their son that my parents had after I came down with the “plague” as it was called at the time.

Like polio at that time, the coronavirus has no known cause, testing for the disease continues to be slow and hampered globally. There are no medications or vaccine. Even the death rate from the disease is uncertain because of flaws in testing and tardiness in evaluating large numbers of people in China and other countries as the epidemic becomes a pandemic. Political and medical officials advise Americans to wash their hands often and stay away from crowds. Anxieties and fears are as contagious as the disease’s spread from its origins in China to the rest of the world.

Now as an old man, the fear I have of the coronavirus striking my family, friends, and the nation must be close to what my parents must have felt when I got polio three-quarters of a century ago.

Polio virus

Known for centuries but isolated in the early 1900s, the virus had triggered epidemics across the world. What caused children and adults to sicken, become paralyzed and die–the disease was often called “infantile paralysis”–was unknown. Thus, prevention was useless. Fear of contagion was rampant wherever cases broke out. There were no medications. Treatment was a combination of muscle wrappings and massage of limbs to ease damage to the body that inevitably occurred.

In the U.S. it occurred periodically paralyzing children and adults, rich and poor alike. One epidemic in 1916 claimed 27,000 Americans. In New York alone there were 8400 cases and 2400 deaths. Five years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came down with the disease at the age of 39 and wore leg braces for the rest of his life including the years he served as President of the U.S. (1933-1945). Not until the early 1950s did a vaccine become available for children.**

The polio epidemic of 1944 swept across Pittsburgh. I caught it. I remember well the weeks I was in the hospital and the months that I was at home. I recall the anxiety and fears that my parents and brothers had–I was the youngest in the family–since the paralysis could cause loss of breathing (“iron lungs” were invented to keep children and adults alive) and destroy muscles. Both of my brothers had been drafted–it was the third year of World War II–and were serving in the U.S. Navy and Air Force. My parents worried about them and now I came down with polio. Friends and neighbors steered clear of our home.

Most vivid of all I remember my mother massaging my legs with cocoa butter in the hospital. I could not walk after I returned home. Daily she would rub my legs with it. I missed junior high school for a few months and when I returned I had a noticeable limp. The smell of cocoa butter has remained fixed in my head ever since.

So too have I remembered drinking raw eggs every morning before I went to junior high school. Because my leg muscles and body wasted during confinement for polio in the hospital and at home, doctors had told my parents that I needed proteins to rebuild muscle strength. So my father every morning before he would go to work would crack open two eggs and put them in a small glass, stir them into one yellow blob and watch as I drank it. I shivered at the taste. This went on for months until I regained weight and could walk and run, albeit slowly.

My guess is that the fears my parents had that I would die went away slowly as I began to walk and returned to school in 1945. With the end of World War II, my brothers came home. I was getting strong enough to bowl, play baseball, and basketball. As I think back to that time 75 years ago, I can imagine their fears for me as I and uncounted millions of families now face Covid-19.

Covid-19

Like many Americans of my generation, I stay at home a lot, talk on the phone, text, and stay away from crowds. I do fist bumps with family and friends, wash my hands often, watch as cancellations of schools, conferences, sporting events, and entertainment venues pile up. Am I fearful and anxious? Yes. Do I keep my fingers crossed that the virus runs its course and disappears? You can bet on that.

Just like my mother and father in 1944 and those parents in San Angelo in 1949 who faced the unknown when their children caught the polio virus, mothers and fathers today concerned about their children and elderly parents contracting the coronavirus, the past has become the present right before our eyes.

Today, I can still smell that cocoa butter. And I do not like eggs very much even when they are scrambled.

_____________________________

*For the description of San Angelo, Texas and the 1949 polio epidemic, I used David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 1-4.

**Ibid., pp. 19-23.

97 Comments

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97 responses to “The Unknown Virus: A Personal Story

  1. Jerry Heverly

    I remember standing in line in the 4th grade to get my shot. Dr. Salk appeared on TV a lot in the 50’s, hailed, justifiably, as a hero. I could see how narrowly I avoided the disease when I met my fraternity brother at Gettysburg –three years my senior–, who limped from his bout with the virus.

    • larrycuban

      Jerry, appreciate your recollection of Salk shot and what it helped you avoid.

    • Wow! Thank You for you vivid reflections. It seems every generation must face the reality that we forget how fragile life can be and often consumed by things that really don’t matter. It is my hope that we come out of this as a more humane society as even in these challenging times hatred is still feasting on many souls…

  2. Ann Staley

    Larry, Your story is a frightening and amazing one. That you survived, that both your brothers returned from WWII, that Dr. Salk and others “found a cure.” I remember the shots, three of them, and didn’t feel grateful enough at the time. I still hate getting shots. I always imagine the doctor as running across the room with a needle pointed at my arm and jabbing me with something the size of a pole vault. This new virus we’re fighting across the world is a wake-up call for those of us who didn’t experience what you did, first-hand. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. EB

    My first-grade classmates and I were “polio pioneers.” I believe in 1952. We were given the first Salk vaccine, experimentally, at school, to see whether it would prevent polio. Parents were more than happy to sign permission forms, because they were so afraid of the disease. They all had friends and relatives who, like you, limped or had other orthopedic disabilities. The vaccine did have a powerful preventive effect, and later versions were easier to use and had no risk of side effects (one version of the vaccine used a live virus, which in a few cases actually gave children polio).

  4. Reuben Rubio

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful reflection. What we are going through now stirs me as well; one of my grandfathers was orphaned at a young age when both his parents died of the Spanish flu when that pandemic reached its fingers into the rurality of central New Mexico about a hundred years ago. Sometimes in our haste to control our environment, routines and plans, we forget that there will be bigger things that will impact our lives. Like you and your parents did, we just have to face those times with the courage and hope that I believe we were all endowed with by our Creator.

    • larrycuban

      And thank you, Reuben, for taking the time to comment about your grandfather’s experience with the Spanish Flu pandemic.

  5. Pingback: Larry Cuban Remembers the Unknown Virus That Terrified Children When He Was a Child | Diane Ravitch's blog

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  7. Scary times. You did a great job covering it. But there are opportunities here.

    I wrote about them recently. Got to make the most out of what we are dealt. Everything has trade offs, some more immediate.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. I had a friend who died a few years ago of post-polio syndrome. He was born late enough that the vaccine was available but early enough that it was still a significant risk. His parents declined the vaccine because they didn’t believe in it.

    I am very glad that COVID-19 is NOT polio. It is the old farts like me who will have to worry the most. If you are going to have an epidemic, that is how it should be.

  9. Fort Worth, Texas, went through a similar outbreak in the mid-fifties. I have two cousins that contracted the virus. One lived in Santa Anna, Texas, about 60 miles from San Angelo, and the other in Fort Worth. They both survived with limps and wore leg braces for a year or so. Those were scary times for families.

  10. Cai

    Straights didn’t give a damn during Aids epidemic. Now an epidemic risks them, now we should all quiver.

  11. Much appreciated Larry even if I am replying from India. I fear for my parents who are well past their sixties and I did take my son for polio vaccine when he was due. Struck a chord. Thank you for the recollections with a bygone era though the virus still holds centrestage.

  12. Thank you for sharing your story of courage.

  13. I remember lining up in school to get that shot. I also remember the daughter of the grocery shop keeper got polio. She had to wear the braces on her legs. And it always felt like she was trying to stay out of sight whenever her schoolmates came to the shop. She was the only person I knew that got it. So at that young age, I surely did not appreciate the severity of what was going on.
    It is so strange that I can see her face right now as though it were yesterday.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Pat

  14. This is a great informative article and well written…I have not only learned about Polio but also seen your style of writing and I can not wait to apply it to my articles…Like you am praying for this virus to disappear am from a developing country in Africa known as Tanzanians and the majority work to eat…no sustainability no preservations…Our first case was discovered yesterday and it is the most Scarry thing…the country has gone silent…you can literally feel the low energy.

  15. Amazing, yet horrifying, story. I have shared it to Twitter

  16. I was thinking about my grandmother who passed away six years ago. Her brother got polio and survived. Her stories kept my chin up as a teenager with Scoliosis. I just thought of how glad I am that she died when I was able to spend her last months visiting even though she couldn’t remember me. Your story reminds us all that we will survive. I hope we do it with more grace than we’ve demonstrated in the last several days.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Lisa, for taking the time to comment about your grandmother. I share your hope for what all of us face now.

  17. I think they kept you waiting too long in isolation and I can’t believe you had to drink raw eggs yak! I don’t know how you did it I would have been gagging! Sorry you went through all that but most fevers are over with in 10 days so I don’t know why you were kept so long and isolation unless they didn’t know how long you were contagious

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  19. myoffbeatscribbles

    “I stay at home a lot, talk on the phone, text, and stay away from crowds.” Highly relatable to my current situation of lockdown – https://offbeatscribbles.wordpress.com/2020/03/18/day-1-of-house-arrest

  20. This was so heartwarming. Thank you for sharing. I really wish we come out of this pandemic with no more loss of lives.

  21. Very good post….. (╯_╰)

  22. Waw. I can see, history indeed has a way of repeating itself.

  23. Awesome read, quite insightful. We shall conquer corona virus just like polio

  24. Thomas A. Vogel

    When do people learn, not to mess with creation. In the meantime we have artificial cows, pics, chickens and if course humans. Whk volunteers to live such an artificially enforce life? Those who wanted it. There are so many millions of soul-less humans out there, they couldn’t care less about themselves. They are life-stock abd they feel it. They do not care to live.

  25. Shendra n Hanney

    It breaks my heart to learn of the anguish and devastating crippling after-effects of the polio virus in the US.
    The polio virus is passed via fecal matter… hands-to-mouth transmission. It
    emphasizes the need to WASH ONE’S HANDS often wherever you are, and without needing a threat of a virus to do so.
    I trained as a Sick Children”s Nurse at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children in Carshalton, Surrey, England (1951 – 1954) The hospital no longer exists.
    We had wards full of children in iron lungs, who had contracted the disease before Sister Kenny’s treatment became available.
    Sister Kenny was a nurse who worked in a remote area of Australia. When the symptoms of this mysterious disease were described to doctors over the radio, she was told to do what she could to make the patients comfortable. (the doctors could not travel the distances to her area).
    Sister Kenny felt that the contracting muscles causing such pain could best be alleviated by applying heat, so she applied hot packs. SHE DISCOVERED THAT THE HEAT NOT ONLY ALLEVIATED PAIN BUT PREVENTED THE MUSCLES FROM PERMANENT CONTRACTION.
    At the time, doctors were putting patients in plaster casts and braces.
    When news of her success began to filter out to the general medical profession, her discovery was ignored and “put down” -– because she was a nurse and not a doctor.

    Fortunately, the powers that be at Queen Mary’s embraced her treatment and began to implement it very successfully. I believe we were the only hospital in England to do so. Children were referred to us arriving in casts, and we immediately had them removed, and began the hot pack treatment.
    We successfully treated children suffering from pulmonary polio, using hot packs, and avoiding an iron lung future. Blessings forever to Sister Kenny.

    Remember – this was the 1950s. We had no masks, or rubber gloves (for the operating rooms only. All the rubber production went to the war machines). Only hand washing, scrubbing in disinfectant for 10 minutes between patients.
    Not one of us contracted acute polio (or for that matter pulmonary TB, and we had wards full of those patients too). Antibiotics were finally available to rescue the TB patients.
    With Dr. Salk’s vaccine, polio seemed to have been beaten forever, but it has made a comeback due to our carelessness.

    So whether the virus is polio or the Covid-19 or some future as yet un-named strain – perhaps the best lesson to be learned from life experience is: prevention, prevention, prevention…

    This has been in response to the polio post, and my past experience with it.

    Now, at 87 – for the Covid-19 challenge, I believe as does Lynn Ungar in her inspirational poem, Pandemic – that we can think of our prevention techniques differently, gratefully embracing the ‘isness’ of each moment as we rest in “stillness”… thank you Lynn…
    You can check out Lynn’s Poem via Google…

    Blessings…

  26. Really sad but very true and a story everyone needs to read. Thank you for sharing.

  27. Se virus qui fait ravage partout sur la terre, que dieu nous garde.

  28. Hats off.. just through your words i could imagine the fear your parents would have felt and the cringing digestion of those eggs by you. Its amazingly frightening how everything you have described is what is happening. Hope. Hope this ends sooner and we face the reality again.

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  30. KeepLifeStylish

    Thank you for sharing your story. You are very strong 💙

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for re-blogging my post on unknown virus.

      • I’m happy to, it’s always important to spread awareness of real-life accounts. It’s all too easy for people to distance themselves from things like this, and not let the gravity of it settle in. Your account may help people to really understand the impact serious illness can actually have on people’s daily lives.

  31. Hey Larry. Thanks for your story. Greetings from sweden

  32. Am in Southern Africa, the disease hasn’t hit that hard yet

  33. …but hearing you take us back to how it was then, at a time that I’ve only read about makes me justified that my fear for my son is justified. Also, it makes me glad to know that humanity always finds a way whenever such a calamity befalls. I hope we all turn our faces to God and beseech Him for all to be protected and healed ..thanks Larry

  34. Thanks for this post. To me, it shows how we have all endured hard times but gotten through them as well. Mindset is key here and whether you call it grit or perseverance or a “growth” mindset, the need to be strong through these uncertain times is paramount.

  35. When I read this story I was surprised about how the disease was spreading out, and the worst cases mostly from New York in the high rate of the total effective and deaths. Those two viruses have the same way to pass from one to another by touching and have to isolated people too. However, I think this is a good real-life story, and thanks for sharing.

  36. Pingback: The Unknown Virus: A Personal Story — Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice « Health Sociology

  37. Thanks Larry. Well and intelligently written. Good luck for the future. PV

  38. Thank you Jerry, the situation is just horrible all over the world right now. My grandfather caught polio he was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, lets hope the coronavirus will go away soon.. Wishing you a great day I love your writing style.

  39. We have same story but the time is different. I had polio when i was one year old in 1994. That time my country somalia 🇸🇴 was going through its worst time. Civil wars was going on and the situation was very difficult, people were dying because of wars and hungry. At first the polio affected right leg and left hand. My parents did their best to find me medicine and luckily the hand cured. But i still have a problem with the leg 🦵. Iam much more better than anyone else who been through this. My mom never make me felt iam different from the other children specially my siblings. She let me study. And I keep studying till I finished my university and now preparing my master’s degree here in Istanbul.
    This disease called polio is fatal but if you have care. Specially caring family you can fight for it.

    Thank you for your story it really inspired me to talk about mine.

  40. Damn, this was scary and quite inspiring at the same time.

  41. this is so inspiring. You are Inspiring !

  42. Wow this is so interesting thanks so much for your story x

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