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'There Was So Little Information': Polio Survivors Offer Pandemic Perspective


A fear of the unknown...


The need to maintain an appropriate distance...

KELLY: And an urgent desire to find a cure or vaccine.

CHANG: They're the hallmarks of the coronavirus epidemic, but they were also the hallmarks of the polio epidemic during the first half of the 20th century.

Ina Pinkney contracted polio in 1944 in Brooklyn, N.Y. She remembers the fear - fear of the disease and fear directed at her after she was infected.

INA PINKNEY: When my parents would take me out of the apartment building that we were in, you could hear everybody get silent, you know, and kind of move away, which is very much what it feels like now.

KELLY: And when one child was hit with polio, it shook the whole family. That was the case when Nancy Theoharis became sick. Her daughter Liz remembers stories about her grandmother frantically trying to protect the other children in the house.

LIZ THEOHARIS: My grandma would kind of furiously take my aunt's temperature every day. You know, they shared a bedroom. And while everybody may have been exposed to it, you know, I think there was a lot of fear that my aunt was going to come down with the virus as well.

CHANG: People stricken with polio could spend weeks hospitalized. That was Margaret Nielsen's experience. She remembers how little doctors knew about the disease and how hard it was for her family to get updates on how she was doing.

MARGARET NIELSEN: They could call once a day, and they would get a one-word response 'cause there were probably so many families calling. So you know, during the initial couple of weeks when I was infectious, there was very little information.

KELLY: At its peak, nearly 60,000 people contracted polio in America. Carl Kurlander's documentary "The Shot Felt 'Round The World" chronicles the search for and the discovery of the first polio vaccine.

CARL KURLANDER: It was such an urgency of - when's it going to be here? Can we get it in time for the '53 season, the '54 season?

CHANG: It actually took until 1955, and the vaccine was welcomed like a conquering hero.

KURLANDER: Church bells rang out. People screamed and let out of school. Around the world, there were headlines - "Victory Over Polio."

KELLY: Now in their 70s and 80s, polio survivors are riding out another deadly virus. But surviving that epidemic has given survivor Ina Pinkney perspective.

PINKNEY: I live with hope. I live with the anticipation that we will be on the other side of this. I don't know what that looks like. It doesn't even matter as long as people are not getting sick and people are not dying.

KELLY: People on the other side of the polio epidemic sharing their reflections in the time of the coronavirus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 13, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of the Web story referred to Dr. Jonas Salk's work on a live virus vaccine in 1947. In fact, Salk's vaccine used an inactivated polio virus.
Apoorva Mittal