Tag Archives: polio

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Grievances Arising from Covid and Beyond

We may want to act, but in some cases the best we can do is react.

One of the apparent effects of long-term stress is that we are more inclined to engage only to assert rather than listen. We seek the psychological release of airing our feelings, leaving our conversational partners to function only as recipients of accumulated complaints. Add in the sour national political mood, and additional stressors of everything ranging from getting children vaccinated, to acknowledging existential threats like climate change, and we are ready to reload our rhetorical canons and keep firing.

Under these circumstances, becoming active and empathetic listeners is all the harder. Most of our energy has already been sapped by rumination and complaints. We are hardly prepared to pay what I once called the “energy surcharge” of active listening that requires taking the time to focus on the feelings of others. You can check yourself on this by recalling the last time you felt the need to write done what another was saying.

Anecdotally, we see forms of “unloading on another” all the time: in videos of passengers arguing with airline agents, unhappy customers using the frail medium of the phone to lodge complaints, or in news reports of political rallies, where everyone present seems to be on a short fuse.

Reaction as a Substitute for Action

In times of stress we may want to act, but in most cases the best we can do is react. And so our rhetoric turns expressive and argumentative in the hope that our words will achieve what seems to be beyond our direct control. For example, it was one thing during the height of the pandemic to be warned that we should stay out of crowded spaces. But for some it was a step too far that our favorite travel destination or restaurant was temporarily off limits. We seem unable to accept a message that requires altering our most fervent intentions: a condition that can launch us into a high rhetorical orbit. Even in the face of solid evidence, hearing an alienating “no” from another is rarely going to be accepted as the last word.

Then, too, there is the apparent promise of an end to the global nightmare of COVID, though that moment seems further off than first thought. And no sooner have its life-threatening negatives begun to subside than other pandemics of social resentments have become more virulent. The many work and family displacements from COVID that added hardships seems to have emboldened many to press forward with ongoing demands for greater gender parity, friendlier workplaces, better childcare, less sexual and racial bias, and corporate reform. An insistence to be heard first and engage later has added new challenges to previously settled relationships. Interactions with employers, family members and even friends now seem more cautious and transactional. They define the current period of superheated identity politics that has become fully transformational: perhaps unwanted by many, but no less real.

With so many interpersonal bonds in flux, it can be hard to know whether the future holds more rebukes, or a placid period of exhaustion and quiescence when we might again hear each other with more understanding.

Seventy years ago, the nation still waited for needed forms of human empowerment. But news of the new polio vaccine created a wonderful pause while the nation celebrated its good fortune. Polio would no longer claim more of its children. In contrast, we seem to be in a time when embedded social inequalities have seeded resentments that have made the nation less interested in savoring our successes.

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Another Vaccine Story

The sense that help is on the way also spread through American households in the mid-1950s.

The current effort to vaccinate citizens against the COVID-19 virus rings bells for people my age, some of whom became the first to receive the Salk polio vaccine in 1954. Recent stories celebrating the apparent success of the new drugs are a reminder of the maelstrom of parental dread about polio that few children probably understood. To be sure, my eight-year-old self was particularly clueless to the risks of being around other kids, or going to parties or swimming pools where the paralyzing disease could attack. Back then, the habit of many parents was to worry alone about the risk of a paralysis that could immobilize their children. Those conversations were mostly saved for other parents. Anyway, kids have a natural habit of living in their own world. Then it was music, radio and bicycles. If we were skating on thin ice as potential victims of a disease, we were only dimly aware of it.

What a contrast with the current pendemic. Our more invasive media mean that there is no such shielding of children from the worries and disruptions of the virus.  COVID-19 is their crisis as well.  As is often true with kids, many are handling it better than the rest of us.

The current sense that help is on the way similarly spread through American households in the 1950s. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh in the Oakland section of the city led a team that found a workable vaccine. All that was left was to manufacture and distribute it, but in reverse order of today’s vaccine roll out. Kids went first because they were most at risk.

Like many others, my third-grade class at Ashley Elementary School would be among the first “polio pioneers,” having volunteered in true Ashley fashion by doing what we were told. It was not that big a deal to get the shot. And there is no doubt the Salk and later Sabin vaccines saved millions from paralysis, withered limbs and leg braces.

The subject didn’t surface in my still unfocused brain until junior high, when I could no long make my legs flexible enough to run. I was stiff most of the time, choosing activities that did not require speed or agility. I warmed the bench in little league, put on weight from too many visits to the Dairy Queen, and preferred to roam surrounding neighborhoods on my bicycle. Only after a checkup, did our family doctor begin to wonder about my stiffness. The most probable cause: the dose of vaccine given to me may have contained some of the virus that had not been fully neutralized. Some minimal physical therapy took place in Denver’s children’s hospital. But the best recommendation was to have me join the track team at my tiny high school when my family moved to the nearby mountains. I was on the team not to compete, but to get back to level of mobility comparable to my peers. It was a chore, since my speed was only slightly better than an enormous shot putter who joined the group for fun. The two of us inadvertently reenacted “The Little Engine that Could” on every slope.

I would not say I had polio. Even while it may have been the cause of my symptoms, the vaccine surely spared me the full effects of the disease. If anything, over the years the Salk Vaccine made me a stronger believer in the power of childhood vaccination. Watching a recreation of F.D.R.’s struggle with polio was the tipping point for a degree of self-awareness. His legs were so sapped of energy that he was carried like a child when he had to be moved to places that were beyond the reach of his wheelchair. Viewing the film as a high school senior, I began to realize that I had perhaps skated closer to the edge than I knew.

                                           UPMC Oakland

Sixteen years later I began a graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh, trekking daily from my apartment on Craft Avenue up to the University about five blocks north. In my daily walks to the center of campus, I never failed to be in awe of the sprawling medical and public health campuses of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, their massive structures made even taller as they marched up the steep hillside above Fifth Avenue. UMPC is how God would want a vast medical complex to look like. It was enough to always remember that this is the spot where my childhood was given both a medical challenge and reprieve. To this day the geography of Pittsburgh is still my reference point for thinking about how dedicated researchers can suddenly tame a terrible disease.