Opinion: I had polio. Vaccines are why you haven't

Carol McDermid, a polio survivor, knows first-hand how critically important vaccines are.

Carol McDermid 3 minute read October 5, 2021
archival photo of nurse and child

Polio is virtually non-existent in the world because of a vaccine. GETTY

It’s 1947.

I am six years old lying in my little bed in an army barrack in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I am burning up and have a horrendous headache. What was wrong with me?

The next thing I remember is lying on a cold hard table in a hospital operating theatre peering into the faces of so many nurses. The doctor is holding what seems to be a gigantic sewing needle with a tube on the end of it — the team must have had to hold me down in order for him to stick that needle into my spine to confirm my illness. I can still conjure up the searing pain.

Poliomyelitis — polio — is the verdict. I am now lying in a big white room, beds to the right and left occupied by children who are around my age. There are strangely large tin cans in the room, each with a small human head sticking out the end of it — it was iron lungs, the large metal ventilators that breathed for them.

Most of what I can remember after that day is the twice daily applications of hot moist woollen rags called foments being wrapped around my arms and legs. That, and the disgusting texture of fish-eye tapioca that served as dessert for most meals (young readers will have to delve into a 1940’s cookbook to figure that one out).

During my time in my new “home,” a doctor would appear at my bedside every day asking me to stand at the end of the bed and to bend over to touch my toes, while he ran his hand down my spine. I understand now that he was checking for curvature in my back — scoliosis, or a curving of the spine, is one of the complications of polio.

I can’t say exactly how long I stayed in hospital, but I think it was a matter of several weeks before I could get back to Grade 1. I read my book about Dick and Jane: “See Dick, see Jane. Run Dick run, run Jane run.” I wondered if they were they running away from other kids who might be polio contagious.

Recovery was hard work. I would hook my toes under the chesterfield, and with my hands behind my head and encouragement from my father, I did countless sit-ups to gain my strength back. Soon after I was winning nickels in foot races at my Dad’s company picnics — and the rest is history. And a great one at that: I was named Alberta’s best female athlete, and went on to a successful sprinting career (100 and 200 metre races), until surgery for a knee injury made competition impossible.

How fortunate am I?

I am one of the lucky ones to have escaped the long-term consequences of this terrible virus. Thanks to Jonas Salk’s vaccine discovery, polio has been nearly eradicated in the world, and countless lives spared.

To the Covid anti-vaxxers, please reconsider your stance. Though the long-term disabilities of the virus may not replicate those of polio, they may well be very inconvenient for your future, or even worse. History cannot repeat itself.

Carol McDermid lives in Calgary, Alberta.