Remembering Detroit’s Polio Epidemic

When I was in the second grade, my friend Patrice asked if I could come home with her after school to play with Barbie dolls and meet her mother. Even before I saw the iron lung set up in the living room of Patrice’s house, I could hear the rhythmic “whoosh.”  Her mother, a polio victim, could see us reflected in the mirror positioned above her head, and she immediately told me not to be scared.

“When you hear that sound, it means I’m breathing,” she explained. Then she acted like all the other mothers of kids I hung out with at St. Mary of Redford School. She asked if I had been studying my Baltimore Catechism book to get ready for First Communion, and sent us into the kitchen to get some cookies.

I haven’t forgotten that childhood image or the polio epidemic that gripped Detroit for nearly 13 years when I was growing up. At that time, mothers were warned “children should avoid summertime play that involves physical activity, chills, or contact with known polio victims.” We didn’t go to swimming pools and followed some strange household rules. My mother used to warn us not to stand in front of the refrigerator when the door was open. We might get chilled – and come down with polio. 

Despite her warnings, I believe my family didn’t take advantage of the availability of the Salk vaccine in the mid-1950s. Later I learned that Salk vaccines were so widely ignored in Detroit at the time that doctors and druggists routinely returned outdated supplies, despite 2,500 annual polio cases. Polio reached its peak in Detroit in 1958, the city’s highest incidence of polio, when two-year-olds were the most susceptible, according to government records. I was five at the time.

It wasn’t until around 1962 that I recall receiving a polio vaccine, the Sabin swallowable version that protected against all three strains of the disease. I stood in line with some of my cousins outside of the Herman Gardens public housing project in northwest Detroit and waited for my turn. A nurse gave me a sugar cube tinted pink with the vaccine. What I remember most about that day is my cousin Carolyn sticking her gum in my hair, far more annoying than taking any medicine.

Memories of Patrice’s mom and that pandemic are why I’ve been diligently following the rules for the second epidemic in my lifetime. Admittedly, Christmas has been the most difficult time so far. 

I missed hearing my husband’s thundering bass on “Joy to the World,” a song he plays every year in church as part of a longtime commitment to music ministry. We didn’t go to Mass this year. We watched the grandkids open their gifts on Zoom. My husband did play “Pandemic Santa,” dressing up in a mask and Santa hat as he left gifts on the porch for grandkids, nieces and nephews. Our five-year-old granddaughter Eleanor hid behind her mother as she watched Pandemic Santa make his rounds, clearly freaked out. “Don’t be scared,” I told her, remembering those long-ago words of Patrice’s mother. “This is how Santa keeps everyone safe.” 

Pandemic Santa makes his rounds (above); a nurse with a Rhode Island polio victim in an iron lung in 1960 (top)

Photo credits: CDC (top), Anita Lienert (bottom)

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