Under Communism in 1950s Hungary, workers were given a 1-2 week vacation each year at a government run hotel (since all private enterprise had been abolished, there were no other kind.) My father had his time assigned in a small village along the shores of Lake Balaton, a popular resort area even today. The lake is fairly shallow, so the water is relatively warm in the summertime, and is surrounded by vineyards. It is also a popular fishing and sailing spot. At the age of four, I was very excited to be able to accompany my father on this holiday, and recall enjoying the rare alone time with him. (My mother’s work also offered similar arrangements for her, but her time off was scheduled for a different slot. Like many things at the time, your personal choices were rarely taken in account.)
Shortly after returning home, I woke up one night wanting to go to the bathroom. As I began to get out of bed, my legs collapsed underneath me, and I couldn’t get off the ground. My grandmother, with whom I shared a room, woke up to my cries, and woke up my parents. It soon became apparent that I was completely paralyzed from the waist down. I was taken to see a doctor, who confirmed may parents’ worst fear – I had contracted polio, that devastating world-wide disease, for which the Americans recently discovered the Salk vaccine. Unfortunately for me, and thousands like me, the vaccine was not yet available behind the Iron Curtain.
Relatively little was known about the illness in my country, except that it was an infectious disease with particular predilection for children and young people. I was thus placed in an isolated pediatric ward with about 40 beds, all filled with children who had been diagnosed with poliomyelitis. My parents were not allowed to come and visit me, being restricted to seeing me through a sliding glass door where the nurses took me in a wheelchair during the weekly restricted visiting hour. Doctors wearing masks and gowns would come by daily to check on me, along with their other patients. Worst for me were the spinal taps, of which I had to endure six during my stay on the ward. Being paralyzed below the waist, I couldn’t sit up unassisted, and was jealous of those kids who could get around on their own with the aid of crutches. We had daily water exercises, where physical therapist passively moved our limbs around to try and prevent muscle atrophy. I realized I was luckier than some, who had their diaphragms affected by the virus, and ended up in iron lungs (the first mechanical ventilators), with many dying of respiratory failure. My parents were told by my doctors the common wisdom of the time that those who recovered did so in about six weeks’ time. If I hadn’t gotten better by then, I would likely remain paralyzed for the rest of my life. I watched with some envy those near me who recovered at least partial function, and could get around the ward with crutches and a wheelchair.
Helping me get though the time was my aunt’s insistence on teaching me how to read prior to my illness, and the supply of books my parents were able to bring me. I fell in love with Jules Verne novels (in excellent Hungarian translations), and while some of the concepts were beyond my understanding at the time, the adventures in the stories captured my imagination. Being able to read these stories out loud also made me popular with those kids who had beds close to mine, as well as with the some of the nurses, whose task of keeping young children entertained was made easier.
Six weeks went by, and I was showing no signs of improvement. My parents attempted to cheer me up during their visits, making promises to me of all the wonderful things we would do together once I got better. My mother somehow found a source for raspberry soda (a black market item at the time) and bribed the nurses to keep a bottle for me in their refrigerator, and give me a glass whenever I asked for it. After six weeks, I was no longer deemed infectious, and moved from the isolation ward to a regular pediatric ward. Now, my parents could at least visit me in person weekly, while I continued with my regimen of water exercises and daily PT. Because of my profound disability, there was no talk of discharging me home; not with both of them working six days a week, and the need to keep up my therapy.
Almost six months after my diagnosis, I woke up one night, and called out to the nurse on duty for something to drink. She sat at desk in middle of the large ward, doing her charting by the light of a single desk lamp. She didn’t hear me, but we were all given little hand bells to ring when we needed something. Mine was on the nightstand next to my bed, but when I leaned over to get it, I knocked it over on the floor. In attempting to get it, I fell out of bed. Then, much to my amazement, I was able, for the first time in six months, to stand up on my own. I could not only stand up, but I found I could walk over to the nurse’s desk to speak to her! (Since that time, I have never taken for granted the ability to walk!) She was as amazed as I was, for she knew my history. We both considered my recovery a miracle. I couldn’t wait to surprise my parents during their visiting day the next morning. Needless to say, there was a lot of crying, lots of joy, and tremendous gratitude. My case was written up in a Hungarian orthopedic journal as the longest polio recovery documented to that time. I still had lots of physical therapy to look forward to, a subsequent operation on my left foot, a need for braces at night on my left leg0 for the next ten years, but I could WALK!
I am so much more fortunate than most polio victims, in that I recovered with only mild atrophy of my left leg, and was able to hike, ski, play tennis, and do most of the things normal children take for granted. I only wish all those ignorant parents who have refused to allow their children to receive the polio vaccine were able to appreciate the potentially devastating disease to which they left their children vulnerable. Now, in the United States, because of them, we have lost herd immunity to polio, and it’s only a matter of time before a plane brings this scourge back to our shores, and creates an epidemic which will kill many, and leave more paralyzed. It will be a very high price to pay for willful ignorance.