I opened the exam room door and hit something. Peeking around the door, I saw an elderly woman wearing a pink sequined hat who was perched in a motorized scooter parked awkwardly in front of the door. I slinked around her to my stool and sat down as I introduced myself. I was running behind, but for some reason, I simply said, “tell me about yourself.”
The woman looked directly at me and, without hesitation, began to tell her story. She started, “I got polio the summer I was fourteen, and I haven’t been able to walk since.” I quickly realized she was an extremely good historian. She told me that the infection began on an August night in 1947 with a fever. She said that she could not bear weight on her legs within days, and her father had to carry her around the house. She said that her mother thought she would die, but she was “tough.”
Indeed, she was tough. I listened with rapt attention as this woman continued, describing how there was a stigma after having polio. She said she never got married or had children. She told me how her right leg “used to be her good leg.” She laughed as she sheepishly told me how she tried driving a few times before she realized it “wasn’t a good idea.” She pointed out that she has a cousin “who is a Saint” who has driven her on errands for years.
She told me that she lives alone, and she disclosed how she uses a transfer board to do literally everything. She proceeded to show me how she uses both of her callused hands to lift each of her withering legs, one at a time, to the transfer board and then slide from the scooter into a chair. She divulged how a “magical” physical therapist introduced her to the transfer board a few years ago, and she does not know what she would do without it.
My new patient’s story engrossed me, and I was struck by how incredibly resilient she was. Despite having been a physician for seventeen years, I had never met someone living with the sequelae of polio. I felt as if I had a glimpse of history that afternoon. Due to widespread vaccination that began in 1955, there have not been any polio cases originating in the United States since 1979. The eradication of polio in the U.S. is truly a testament to vaccination’s extraordinary power.
Sarah C. Smith is a family physician.
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