A teen in Nottingham, England went into a coma last March after being struck by a car and just awakened this week to an odd world of COVID and masks and quarantines. We may envy him that he missed the last 11 months.
Today’s pandemic has led us to the history books for a parallel. We can marvel at the photos online from the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. We can hardly believe stories of deaths by the millions. My parents were fairly young and isolated in the country at the time, and hardly spoke of it later, but my friend Bob Williams retells his grandpop’s grim tales of his days working on the railroad and seeing coffins filled with the dead stacked four high.
A generation later, I was a child of the 1940s and 50s and was scared of a less deadly epidemic: polio. It wasn’t often fatal, but it was a gruesome, crippling disease. Newspapers and Life and Look magazines ran photos of kids in heavy leg braces or immobile in iron lungs. We had a family friend whose son contracted polio and spent some considerable time in an iron lung, and I was more than a tad fearful when his family visited ours.
We almost never went to the swimming pool in Fork Union. My parents just knew that if we did, we’d get polio. If you are old enough, you, too, may remember dire warnings about swimming in public pools, and perhaps you saw your local facility closed.
You may also remember that once the news got out, President Roosevelt’s polio was a public concern, and if you are my age, you remember the early “March of Dimes” campaign, founded by FDR and dedicated at that time to polio research. Stores often had donation jars on their counters by the register, and it was hugely popular in schools. Recall those little donation cards with slots for dimes? When you filled the card with dimes (ten, I think), your teacher would send it off somewhere to be added to the research dollars. And by 1955, Dr. Salk reported the success of his vaccine and soon I got one of those sugar cubes with a magic drop on it.
That was 17 years after the March of Dimes campaign began. Seventeen years. We’ve not seen a new case originate here since 1979 – nowadays the U.S. finds one only when an immigrant brings it in. COVID-19 is yet to be defeated, but we are looking at vaccines developed and distributed in eleven months. Only eleven months. I’d say that’s a spectacular feat – it’s enough to make a fellow believe that given support and a little time, doctors and science can do almost miraculous things.
David Black lives in Louisa County.