It was 1937. The highly contagious polio disease was making a second wave across Canada, spreading with it panic and fear. In Saskatchewan alone, the provincial department of public health reported 519 cases of polio that year and 22 deaths. By the early 1940s, the polio epidemic had reached a state of crisis in Saskatchewan and a small isolation annex at St. Paul’s Hospital became the first polio ward of its kind in the province. In the first of this two-part story, read how polio affected one woman’s life.

 

Georgie Taylor in her bed at the Red Cross Crippled Children's Hospital, Calgary, just prior to being discharged in 1948.

Georgie Taylor in her bed at the Red Cross Crippled Children’s Hospital, Calgary, just prior to being discharged in 1948.

What began with a high fever soon led to a chilling diagnosis. “I remember the doctor in our village saying I might have polio,” says Georgie Taylor. “We were terrified of polio.” It was 1947 and Taylor was only eight years old, living in a small Alberta village. Her diagnosis was confirmed in a Calgary isolation chamber. She vividly recalls what she describes as the worst year of her life. “I was next to a woman who was paralyzed from polio and in an iron lung. The machine made a dreadful, frightful noise – clang, clang, clang,” recalls Taylor.

She spent most of the next year of her childhood in hospitals, unable to use her legs or even to sit upright. She tearfully recalls the difficulty of being alone, away from her parents and siblings, enduring the extreme pain in her legs, and feeling terrified by things that happened in the hospital. “Every night, I would wait until the other girls in my ward were asleep and then I would pull the blanket over my head and cry. I cried myself to sleep every night I was in the hospital.”

Near the end of her hospital stay in 1948, physiotherapists, who had flown in from England to work with polio patients, helped Taylor to walk again. “I had forgotten how to walk. The physiotherapist first asked me to sit upright on my knees on my bed. I fainted and hit my head on the wall beside my bed. It had been so long since I had been upright.” With very little schooling during her bout with polio, Georgie had also forgotten how to read, something her mother helped her learn over again when she was finally able to return home.

A new vaccine
And then, came the first successful polio vaccine, developed by American medical researcher and virologist Jonas Salk and first tested in 1952. In the mid-1950s, Saskatchewan embarked on an aggressive immunization program and began widely distributing the new vaccine. By 1958, the province had only one case of polio. There was some resurgence of the disease in 1959 and 1960, mostly among those who refused vaccination or didn’t complete the three-dose course.

Registered and head nurse Nattie Humphrey in 1943, caring for a patient with polio in an iron lung in the St. Paul’s Hospital isolation unit. Polio, an infection which damages the motor neutrons of the spinal cord, was also known to cause respiratory or throat paralysis. With no cure for polio, the iron lung shown here provided many with some relief of symptoms. Photo courtesy of St. Paul’s Hospital Mission Office.

Registered and head nurse Nattie Humphrey in 1943, caring for a patient with polio in an iron lung in the St. Paul’s Hospital isolation unit. Polio, an infection which damages the motor neutrons of the spinal cord, was also known to cause respiratory or throat paralysis. With no cure for polio, the iron lung shown here provided many with some relief of symptoms. Photo courtesy of St. Paul’s Hospital Mission Office.

Taylor’s parents took advantage of the vaccine and made sure her siblings were immunized against polio and other diseases.

“People I meet today say I’m lucky I wasn’t paralyzed,” shares Taylor. “But I didn’t feel lucky then and I don’t feel lucky now. It was a dreadful experience.” The pain in her legs remained through her teenage years and into her twenties. Even today, she can feel the lingering effects. Polio has been documented to affect individuals up to 40 years after first contracted.

There were nearly 50,000 recorded cases of polio during the epidemic that left over 11,000 people paralyzed. Many died. The disease was considered to be the most serious Canadian epidemic since the 1918 influenza. American media declared polio the greatest fear of the United States, apart from the atomic bomb.

“Today, polio has been eliminated in North America and is on the verge of eradication,” says Deputy Medical Health Officer Dr. Shovita Padhi. “This is 100 per cent due to vaccination.”

Read the second part in this series