By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Jim Scott can still hear the voice on the radio announcing that Dr. Jonas Salk had successfully developed a vaccine against polio.
Scott, then 12, was sitting on the edge of his bed in a rehabilitation hospital for polio patients.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
"The place was filled with people with polio, kids and adults. There were people in iron lungs and people with braces and all the different devices," he recalls.
Today, Scott, the morning announcer on WLW, is the voice on the radio, and one of thousands of adults who can claim they survived a plague that is nearing extinction.
Fifty years after Salk started testing his vaccine, polio remains a threat in only six countries. Salk's rival, Dr. Albert Sabin, a virologist at what was then Cincinnati's Children's Hospital, introduced a live vaccine in 1960 that proved to be more effective at preventing the disease. International health experts think they can eradicate the virus completely by the end of next year as a massive global vaccination campaign nears its finish.
A summer plague
Polio was best known as a summer plague, since the disease was most active then, but it existed year-round. Public pools and movie theaters would often stand empty every summer to avoid the risk of contamination as word spread that a family had been infected. In 1952, the epidemic hit its highest point when 58,000 Americans contracted the virus.
Dr. Paul Spaccarelli, a Kenwood obstetrician/gynecologist, remembers the health department closing down his father's drugstore - Deno's Drug's on Erie Avenue in Hyde Park - when Paul was diagnosed with polio. It was 1944, and he was 4 years old.
He still wears a brace on his left leg. "It never stopped me from doing anything; my parents and all my cousins wouldn't have allowed it."
Scott was one of the few who caught polio in winter. He contracted it in December 1954, a few days after his 12th birthday. He remembers feeling "pretty shaky," and doctors weren't sure at first whether he had polio or spinal meningitis.
At first, he was completely paralyzed. Gradually, he got better. His left arm was most affected; he still can't bring his left thumb across to make a fist, and his left hand looks shrunken. His right leg is a little weak.
Scott, 61, grew up in Binghamton, N.Y. When he was well enough, he was sent to the rehabilitation hospital, 60 miles away in Ithaca, for six months. The March of Dimes - which was founded in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a polio survivor, to prevent and treat the disease - paid for his treatment.
"I was terrified when I got there," he says. "I was 12 years old. I'm 6'3" now, and I had just started a growth spurt. That's the time in your life when you're supposed to break away and be independent and all of a sudden, you're knocked down in such a way that you feel very dependent and vulnerable."
Many polio survivors still shudder at memories of being separated from their parents for rehabilitation.
Sheila Stuckey was 7 when she got polio in August 1949. She spent two months in an iron lung at Cincinnati's General Hospital - now University Hospital - before going to Children's Hospital for rehabilitation.
"There were lots of other children around me who had it. We were in a huge ward and our parents were only allowed to stay for 15 minutes in the afternoon," Stuckey says.
She was paralyzed from the neck down, but a mirror attached to the iron lung let her see a few people behind her. "That was kind of strange, but it gave you something to look at," she says.
The Hyde Park woman doesn't remember much, but she's still struck by how large the hospital ward was, "with 25 or 30 iron lungs lined up in rows."
Dr. Bea Lampkin, a cancer specialist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. But when she got polio in August 1941, she had to go all the way to Birmingham, about 60 miles away, for rehabilitation, a scary experience for a 7-year-old.
"It was terrifying. What was most terrifying was that it was the first time I had been away from home. I cried," Lampkin, now 70, says. "And one nurse, she was so mean! When I would cry every night, she would put me into a dark room all by myself."
Lampkin and Stuckey both suffered permanent weakness in their legs. Now the two women both have post-polio syndrome, a degenerative illness that strikes polio survivors decades after their initial infection.
Lampkin's most vivid memory is hearing the family doctor tell her father that she might not survive the night.
She proved him wrong, and 19 years later, she was distributing Sabin's polio vaccine in sugar cubes to children and adults in Cincinnati.
Lampkin, now a cancer specialist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, served her residency at the hospital.
Salk's vaccine went into field tests in 1954. It was approved for widespread use the next year.
In 1957, Sabin's vaccine, which used a live, weakened virus, went into testing overseas. It proved to be more effective than Salk's vaccine. The first of the "Sabin Sundays" began in 1960 when children and adults lined up to receive the oral vaccine. In Hamilton County, 186,000 people got the vaccine that year.
Cases drop drastically
Distributing those sugar cubes was a highpoint for Lampkin, a polio survivor.
"I was so happy, because it meant that we were not going to have polio anymore," she says.
The March of Dimes pushed vaccination efforts, and their hard work paid off: In 1957, two years after Salk's vaccine was approved, only 5,600 polio cases were reported in the United States. By 1964, two years after Sabin's vaccine replaced Salk's, the caseload dropped to 121 cases nationally.
The last naturally occurring, or "wild," polio case in the U.S. was reported in 1979.
In 1986, Cincinnati paid tribute to Sabin for his role in stemming polio, naming the city's convention center in his honor.
Scott emceed the event and met Sabin, who died in 1993.
In 2000, when Albert Sabin Way was dedicated to connect Children's and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Stuckey met Sabin's widow, Heloisa Sabin.
"She said, my husband would be so proud of you, and she hugged me," Stuckey says.
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