The COVID-19 pandemic is resurfacing memories of another disease that hit the nation years ago. Forgotten to some, unknown to others, polio was a disease that killed thousands of victims, left them impaired or living confined to an iron lung.
Polio, much like COVID-19, was widely spread. Some who became infected didn’t know they had the virus, others had mild symptoms, while others dealt with devastating impacts.
“It was a very fearful time,” said Betty Johnson, who contracted polio in 1945 at the age of 7, “similar to the virus now for people.”
Just a year after Betty contracted polio, in August 1946, the Fergus Falls Daily Journal reported that due to high rates of transmission, the start of school was delayed for two weeks and the Minnesota State Fair was canceled.
Additionally, the Fergus Falls city health officer required children under 15 refrain from attending any gatherings. Swimming programs were canceled, Sunday school was closed and the county fair was canceled.
Oct. 24 is World Polio Day, and polio will forever remain in the memories of those who experienced it. A community of people who survived polio live in Otter Tail County and have been gathering together since 1991 in a post-polio support group.
Started in 1991 by polio survivor Janice Gradin, the Fergus Falls Polio Support Group has been meeting together for over 30 years. These individuals have been sharing their experiences living with the effects of polio, educating themselves and the community and providing support to one another.
Many affected by polio thought their experience was in the past, but some who became infected now live with the after-effects of the disease, suffering from post-polio syndrome (PPS).
PPS is a condition that can affect people with polio years after their recovery from the initial infection. The muscles that were previously affected by the poliovirus become weakened, fatigued or atrophied. It can also cause joint pain or deformities. The symptoms are rarely life-threatening but can have a huge impact on an individual’s ability to live independently.
“I’m a survivor and it’s not something you just ever think is going to come back,” shared Verna Johnson, a member of the support group who was diagnosed with polio in 1955 at the age of 16, “but it can and it does.”
Betty joined the support group right away in 1991 and has enjoyed the guest speakers, therapists, exercise tips, sharing, having coffee and “talking about our aches and pains.”
Another member of the support group is Judy Johnson. Judy contracted polio in 1959, at the age of 20. For a time, she was paralyzed from her throat down and spent nine months at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis. She recovered but now experiences post-polio symptoms. “Most of us now are all battling with the post polio,” she explained. “Which is not easy to accept.”
Those living with the after effects of polio meet together about twice a year to share their stories and find encouragement and camaraderie.
“We all have stories to tell of a now-forgotten disease,” wrote Betty in a recent letter to the Daily Journal, “thanks to Dr. Salk.”
In 1953, medical researcher Jonas Salk developed a successful vaccine that would, over the years, eradicate polio. Looking back at that time, the current experience of the COVID-19 pandemic shares some similarities but is also quite different.
“We were all given our shots,” said Betty, recalling when the polio vaccine came out and was administered in schools. “Every student was lined up and you got your shot and everybody waited eagerly to try to avoid getting polio,” she described, “and that’s a little different today.”
Marilyn Horgen, a member of the support group who overcame polio in 1953 at the age of 5 also recalls her classmates lining up at school to receive their polio vaccine.
Judy, who contracted polio as an adult after the vaccine was available says she regrets not getting the vaccine sooner.
“I regret that we did not get that vaccine or that sugar lump that had the dosage on there soon enough,” she says. “I really regret that.”
Judy, Betty, Horgen and Verna all say that the support group has been helpful to each of them.
“The support group has been very supportive,” explained Judy. “(It’s) very encouraging to be able to sit and talk and encourage each other.”
“I love it,” said Verna, “because you see, normally you don’t have anyone to share this with.”
“I came late to the game,” joked Horgen. “I just found it very interesting ... knowing that others were going through the same thing … I wasn’t crazy or something, or imagining these things.”
Other members of the support group include Nancy Tollerson, Mary Carol Peterson, Joyce Sodergren and Milton Lien.
Members who have since died include Roy Ketcham, Ronald Brown, Janice Gradin, Marilyn Spitsberg and Violet Skogen.