Beth Kaplan is a Toronto-based author whose most recent book is Loose Woman: My Odyssey From Lost to Found.
The issue of vaccine skepticism is personal for me. Because my father, first of all, was a scientist who believed with all his heart in the efficacy and power of rigorous scientific exploration and discovery. But also because, just after my first birthday, he nearly died of polio.
On Monday Aug. 7, 1951, my father was a vigorous 28-year-old with a family and a new job as a research scientist and assistant professor of physiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. That day, his head and body ached; he thought he had the flu. On Tuesday, he developed a raging fever, and two days later he was in hospital, diagnosed with polio, near death. He felt the virus crawling up his body, paralyzing and destroying nerves and muscle. When it reached his lungs, he would die or be entombed in an iron lung. On Friday, the machine was pushed into position outside his door.
But as Saturday sped by, and Sunday, my father continued to breathe, blessed oxygen still squeezed in and out by his own muscles. On Monday, the miracle was confirmed: The virus had reached as far as his lungs and stopped. It just stopped. There’s no medical explanation for that fact. My mother always said the poliovirus was no match for my dad’s will; he simply was not ready to go and so wrestled this mortal enemy to a standstill. Or he was just lucky.
The patient was left severely debilitated, with 40 pounds stripped from his already lean frame, his muscles badly wasted. He wondered whether he’d end his days like his hero Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a vigorous man with useless legs. The traditional rehabilitation technique for polio involved keeping patients immobile, and his doctors did not want him to move. But my father had learned about the Sister Kenny method, which meant careful exercise and the application of warm compresses.
“How can I regain strength in my muscles if I don’t use them?” he protested.
To his doctors’ dismay, he defied their orders, insisting that hospital staff rig pulleys above his bed; he spent the days struggling, over and over, to use his scrawny arms to lift himself. In bed at night he worked his fingers, pushing them to wriggle and curl. Immersed in a warm rehab pool, instead of lying still as instructed, he struggled to kick his legs. My father’s leg and hand muscles had been so damaged that everyone was sure he’d never walk, at least without crutches, and he’d certainly never play his beloved violin again. But within a month, as other polio victims on his ward were consigned to wheelchairs for life, Dr. J. Gordin Kaplan was straining to get out of bed.
His greatest fear, Mum told me, was fire. If a fire broke out in the old building, the nurses and doctors would have no choice but to rush to safety, and the helpless patients would be left to burn.
He was sent to Halifax’s Camp Hill Veterans hospital to convalesce. There’s a photograph of him in pyjamas and robe, holding himself up in a metal walker, smiling down at the intent small girl hanging onto the back of her stroller beside him. Shuffling along on his wasted legs, he was teaching himself, all over again, how to put one foot in front of the other. Fourteen months old, I was tottering upright for the first time. And so the two of us lurched forward, side by side.
My father and I learned to walk together. That bond lives in my bones.
By November, he was recuperating at home, delighted each time he could grasp something, especially the first time he picked up his violin bow, testing, with trepidation, to see whether he could hold it properly. His right hand in particular never regained full musculature; he had to hold the bow at an odd angle, the fingers clamped along the wood. But he played.
He never regained full strength in his legs either. Though once an avid skier, he never skied again, and so neither did his family. To this day I have never once strapped on a pair of downhill skis, because my father had polio in 1951.
But in a surprisingly short time, he was functioning. Any disabilities were hidden and never acknowledged again. Well enough to resume his teaching duties, he immediately threw himself into volunteering with the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Council and the March of Dimes, joining the board, fundraising – anything to further the cause of teaching about and preventing polio. He began to spend part of each weekend driving to remote Nova Scotian villages to locate and counsel children and adults who’d been afflicted and were often shut away by their families – as if the disease was shameful, a curse.
His great dream was the discovery of an effective vaccine.
One of the most thrilling days of Dad’s life came in 1955, when he learned that Jonas Salk’s work to develop a vaccine for polio had been successful. His joy was boundless; soon no one would have to suffer what he’d suffered, what he’d witnessed others going through, his friends in wheelchairs and leg braces and iron lungs. That Dr. Salk was the son of Jewish immigrants, like Dad, and had gone to the same Manhattan high school, was a bonus at a time when anti-Semitism was unapologetic in Halifax, as elsewhere.
In the fifties, at the height of the Cold War, Canadians feared two things above all else: nuclear war and polio. Though I was only five when I was given the vaccine, I remember my father’s immense relief and pride. Polio, also called infantile paralysis, afflicted mostly young children. Now his daughter would be safe from this hideous virus, if not from nuclear annihilation. In 1953, 500 people in Canada died of polio. In 1965, after a national vaccination program, there were three cases. Less than 25 years after Dr. Salk’s vaccine appeared, polio was almost completely eradicated.
Dad would be infuriated by the vaccine skepticism raging today. That lay people feel they know better than dedicated, highly trained scientists because of some tidbit they read on the internet – Dr. Google, providing an “expert” opinion on any and everything – would strike him as the height of human arrogance and foolishness. Yes, science has made mistakes, sometimes, like the conventional methods of polio rehabilitation, attempting a solution without enough information. But far more often, scientific discoveries have saved countless lives. This year, scientists were able to make use of unparalleled resources, including vast sums of money and many decades of research and knowledge, to produce the COVID-19 vaccine so quickly.
Dr. Salk believed that mandatory vaccination of children was a moral imperative. He, too, would have found the current reluctance an incomprehensible folly.
After his recovery, my father lived 37 rich, productive years, which included many fierce activist battles for the advancement of science and against nuclear proliferation. In his last year of life, as he confronted terminal cancer at the age of 65, he told me he had not a single regret. “I’ve been given so much,” he said.
I think his sanguine acceptance of a too-early death came because he felt every minute of those intervening years had been a gift.
Today, we have been given a gift in the fight against COVID-19. Let us not waste it.
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