50 years later, polio survivor remembers
April 14, 2005
Al Jackson was 7 years old in 1942 when he went swimming with his brother at a local pool in Oakland. A few days later, he felt ill, and his neck became stiff. Soon, his entire body was paralyzed.
Jackson had polio, and would not be able to walk for another 10 months. Now almost 70, he went on to become a professional photographer.
“I’m sure glad that kids don’t have to deal with that today,” Jackson said from his home in Stateline. He’s lived in Tahoe for 29 years.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the polio vaccine. Millions of children worldwide have been spared from the painful and debilitating disease since April 12, 1955. Before the vaccine, the viral illness paralyzed tens of thousands of children in the United States and half a million worldwide each year.
One moment sticks out in Jackson’s memories from that time.
“I was in the front bedroom. They were helping me. My mother was putting the packs on, and it was very painful,” he said.
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Polio was like having knots in your muscles, all over your body, all the time, he said.
Pioneering treatment for polio preceded the vaccine.
Jackson’s mother had been taught the Kenny treatment, and he believes that saved him, along with a lot of other children and adults with polio.
A daily regiment of applying warm packs and exercise was developed by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, who was not a nun but a nurse in the Australian medical corps. Her method was controversial, but proved the best way to help people walk again.
“She advocated applying heat and physical therapy whereas the medical establishment at that time advocated immobilization with splinting and casting to prevent deformities,” writes Dr. Henry Holland on the Lincolnshire Post Polio Network’s Web site, http://www.ott.zynet.co.uk/polio/lincolnshire/.
Jackson was back on his feet within 10 months, but he weighed only 45 pounds when he was 9 years old.
“I had a neighbor that had a lunch stand and she would make me come in and eat a hamburger, fries and a milkshake every single day, and I would not gain weight,” he said.
A lonely stay at a rehabilitation center near Stanford when he was 10 added 50 pounds to his skin and bones. Part of his diet was squares of bread soaked in cod liver oil. He still cringes remembering the smell of it.
Third world reality
Today, vaccines for terrifying illnesses of the past mean children do not have to go through what Jackson went through. However, polio and other preventable diseases persist in developing countries, where vaccines often aren’t available.
The world’s richest man, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has donated $1.5 billion for immunizations in poor countries. And Rotary Club’s top international mission is to eradicate polio worldwide.
David Kelly, a member of Kiwanis and other service clubs, had two forms of polio as a child. He’s concerned about what he’s hearing that parents are deciding to forego routine vaccinations because they fear their children could get the disease.
While that’s a possibility with vaccines, particularly smallpox, it’s extremely rare.
“Think of the odds, one in a million,” Kelly said. He is completely paralyzed in one arm, partially paralyzed in two other limbs, and would hope parents would give their children the chance to live the best quality life.
“By the grace of God, we have these things (vaccines). I’ll take the chance,” he said.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.