A polio survivor and caregiver offer perspective and hope for the COVID weary
In a lot of ways, the novel coronavirus is a scary, new thing.
But not everything about the formidable, marathon event, we're trying to survive is totally unprecedented.
In fact, some aspects of this pandemic are very familiar to people who lived through the polio epidemic of the 1950s and its aftermath — people like Carol Randall and Caroline Walker of Fredericton.
They're both confident that vaccines will change the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and that this, too, shall pass.
Randall caught polio when she was eight years old.
It was 1952, the year before the disease peaked in this country with nearly 9,000 cases and 500 deaths, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.
There were outbreaks in four waves beginning in the 1910s.
"Provincial public health departments tried to quarantine the sick, closed schools, and restricted children from travelling or going to movie theatres," chronicled the CPHA, but the disease continued to spread.
Ringing any bells, yet?
Randall's parents sent her away to the country in hopes of keeping her safe. She stayed with a couple in Charlotte County who had no children.
"I was not allowed out of the yard," she recalled.
"Yet down the road I could hear the kids swimming underneath the bridge."
Just when her parents thought the risk had passed, Randall became infected. She started feeling symptoms on the drive home.
"I had an awful headache -- which I never have -- and then I slept in the car -- which is unusual for me. The next day the doctor came to the house and I was diagnosed with polio."
Her brother and sister got it too, said Randall, but they were affected to a lesser degree.
Randall had what's known as paralytic polio. Soon after being diagnosed, she could move only her neck and the fingers on her left hand.
She was in hospital for ten months. She was 10 when she had her first surgery. She's had eight operations in all -- two on each limb. And also underwent physiotherapy.
She recovered to the point that she was able to ride horses, walk with crutches and go dancing when she was in her twenties.
But she's lost some mobility again, especially after she was injured in a fall 15 years ago.
"I was at a conference once and they said … with post-polio syndrome ... the worst you were at the beginning is what you will be at the end."
"I call it coming full circle," she said, "because being a quadriplegic then, that's basically what I am now."
Randall doesn't let it slow her down.
These days, she can be found zipping around Fredericton's trail system on her motorized scooter, taking artful pictures of scenery and historic buildings.
But back in 1955, Randall was one of the first patients at Fredericton's new polio clinic.
As with COVID, governments responded to the polio crisis by creating entirely new programs and structures.
The provincial government wasn't really in the healthcare business at the time, recounted Caroline Walker, a former clinic employee. But there was a great mobilization of resources to deal with the new disease, which was afflicting large numbers, and which doctors were still trying to figure out.
There had been a polio clinic next door in the Victoria Public Hospital starting in 1941, as well as an adjacent isolation building for polio patients, but those quarters were deemed insufficient when a new wave of cases hit in 1951.
"They thought it was important enough to build it and to bring physiotherapists over from Scotland to work there," said Walker.
It's kind of a misnomer to call it a clinic, she said. It was essentially a hospital.
The red brick building, facing Woodstock Road at the corner of Smythe Street, had state-of-the-art physiotherapy facilities on the first floor, including a therapeutic pool, a Hubbard tank, whirlpool baths, a gym, treatment cubicles, clinic offices and a laundry.
The second floor had rooms for young patients. Adults stayed on the third floor. And on the fourth floor was a provincial laboratory.
"Patient rooms were large," recalled Walker, "in order to accommodate the iron lungs," -- which were full-body respirator tanks.
The technology has advanced since then, of course, but COVID once again led hospitals to stock up on ventilators this year, to help those who become severely ill and can't breathe on their own.
The polio clinic had been open for eight years when Walker went to work there as a physiotherapist.
"Physiotherapy was essential in the complicated recovery process from polio," she said.
Walker provided ongoing treatment for recovering children and adults.
That's another way the COVID-19 pandemic is somewhat similar to the polio epidemic, she said. At first it was thought that only a certain age group was at risk. But as time went on, people of all ages became stricken.
And like COVID, polio affected each individual differently.
"You might have a whole hand affected," said Walker, "or was it just the muscles that close the hand? Or the muscles that open the hand?"
"You would have to analyze every single muscle to figure out which ones were affected and which ones weren't. And then you'd have to see if there was any chance of getting some return of function … Then then you'd have to develop an exercise program that was specific to them."
Walker treated in-patients and out-patients.
But by 1963, when she started her job, there were no new infections coming in.
"There were only recovering polio patients," she said, "because of the successful vaccination program."
"The epidemic had been stopped by the vaccines."
Randall also considers vaccines the game-changer for polio.
"You look at the stats," said Randall, who used to work as a National Hockey League statistician.
"The numbers really dropped once the vaccine came out."
"I'd like to think that if a polio vaccine had come along in the early 50s ... then I wouldn't have got it."
"I wouldn't have been where I am today."
Randall's heart goes out to those who won't get a COVID-19 vaccine in time for it to make a difference for them.
"I feel bad for all the world right now. I know that the researchers are trying to get something as soon as they can. But in the meantime, this thing is just steamrolling everywhere."
But Randall and Walker are both confidently optimistic vaccines will turn the tide again.
Jonas Salk invented a polio vaccine in 1955, when the Fredericton polio clinic was still under construction. An oral vaccine came out in 1962. By 1965, there were almost no cases across the country.
When Walker sees the old clinic building today, she said she thinks of it as a symbol of the success of polio vaccines.
"The need for the polio clinic disappeared," she said, as the patients were rehabilitated and returned to the community over the next few years.
The building was taken over by the connected Victoria Public Hospital in 1967.
It was later used as a veterans' health unit and was repurposed many more times over the years.
It's now occupied by staff from the Department of Public Safety, Horizon Health Network and non-profit groups.
"It was eliminated so quickly once the vaccine was put into use," said Walker. "I find it so fascinating. That could happen with COVID."
With files from Information Morning Fredericton and Philip Drost