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In my father’s effects, a reminder of polio’s deadly consequences Add to ...

Pulling a sheaf of papers from a large envelope among my father’s effects, a card dropped out, a card I recognized instantly. It was sent to me by the United States government for participating in the 1954 test of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.

I was transported to a day in October that year when Mrs. Altarac, my Grade 4 teacher at East School in Long Beach, N.Y., and the principal, Ms. Hendrickson, strode into our classroom like a cortege. In Mrs. Altarac’s calmest, saddest, and most motherly voice, she said: “Children, Howie has polio.” Howie had not been in school for several days. I felt sorrow for the Koslow family and a rising fear of contagion that could result in me lurching from place to place, legs encased in metal, like my Uncle Cy.

The kids in our class were potential carriers, so we would have to be separated from the rest of the school. Our arrival at school was to be a half-hour later than the other students; our lunches had to be eaten separately; our recess was taken at a different time; we would leave school half an hour later.

As if insidious polio was not bad enough, another monster appeared, this one massive and fully visible: Hurricane Hazel, the most destructive storm on record to hit the northeastern United States before Hurricane Sandy. Even Toronto, hundred of miles inland and where I would come to live in 1967, was not spared the flooding, the major loss of life and extensive property damage. Within a day of our quarantine, Hazel swooped and twisted into New York like a witch on a runaway broomstick. That evening, my father hurried my mother, my brother, my sister and me into the car. He explained that we were going to the Bronx where Dr. Sperling, a relative of my mother’s, was waiting to give us immune boosting gamma globulin shots.

The confidence that a calm parent can give to his or her children, even in the most dire of circumstances, cannot be overestimated. Still, the three of us sided with my protesting mother, wondering why my father would risk swamped and treacherous roads, car-wash type rainfall, falling telephone poles and popping electrical wires. High-pitched winds screamed outside and through the closed windows of our Chrysler.

Later in life, my older brother filled in the previously sketchy details of my father’s experience as a child. I knew my father was a polio survivor, but was ignorant of the actual circumstances. In 1916, just after my father had reached his first birthday, his older brother contracted polio and died. My grandparents, educated by rumour and superstition in a shtetl near Minsk, thought they could fool the evil eye by disguising their second son as a girl and so avert the disaster that had befallen their first born.

Despite their precautions, my father, all of three years old, came down with polio while still wearing a dress. By that time, his family was living in a Bronx tenement on Washington Avenue. A neighbourhood yenta claimed to know Boris Thomashefsky, the famous actor and libertine from the Yiddish theatre. She also knew that his strong, independent wife, Bessie, was a caring and charitable person. According to the Yiddish newspapers, the Thomashefsky couple hosted an Italian doctor who had supposedly discovered “a great cure” for polio. Urged on by this neighbour, Bessie Thomashefsky accompanied the doctor to my father’s tenement in a chauffeur-driven limousine.

Dozens of people were fanning themselves on front stoops and fire escapes while children soaked in water gushing from fire hydrants. They all ran over to the car, the doctor emerging to a cacophony of prayers and cheers. He was pointed toward the building where my father lay stricken. When told he would have to climb four flights of stairs in that crowded, infested building, the doctor immediately turned away and got back into the car. When Bessie refused to follow suit, the car was surrounded.

Reluctant but resigned, probably muttering curses, the doctor emerged, and, with my grandparents leading the way, he climbed up to the top floor. Once inside the quarantined bedroom and seeing my father who was, by then, feverish, throwing up, and already showing signs of paralysis, he asked my grandmother for as many blankets as they had in the apartment. The great cure, as it turned out, was sweating out the virus, to which my desperate grandparents agreed. The blankets raised my father’s fever to a life-threatening level. He was then submerged in cold water, pulled out screaming and covered again with the blankets. Eventually, the fever broke. He survived with nothing more than a half-paralyzed forehead, living for 89 eventful years.

We did arrive at Dr. Sperling’s house. We were given the painful gamma globulin shots. Before that October was over, Dr. Jonas Salk’s new vaccine was made available to my quarantined class and to 1.8-million other American children.

Dr. Salk’s name is immortal, but not the name of that doctor who saved my father in 1920, allowing me and my siblings to be born. In fact, our lives can be attributed to everyone involved on that day: the doctor, the yenta, the other people of the neighbourhood, Bessie Thomashefsky, and, of course, to my father, for surviving.

Ken Klonsky lives in Vancouver.

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