“Shortly after 10 a.m. tomorrow, the answer to the question mankind has been anxiously waiting for will be given.”
— New York Times front page, April 12, 1955, on the newly-developed polio vaccine
Life will unfold in unexpected ways, some exhilarating, some more terrifying than we will allow ourselves to ponder too much. It is self-preservation that brings a dose of the oblivious to our every day.
This was surely true in the days my parents were beginning to build a life as young adults. Polio, a highly contagious and horrifying virus that had its most enormous outbreak in the United States in 1916, had returned in varying case numbers during the hottest months across the country.
My parents, married in 1951, were fully aware that the 1952 polio epidemic had become the worst outbreak in our nation’s history. Both knew families impacted by the paralysis of polio, and as they brought babies into the world, they prayed mightily for a vaccine along with everyone else.
With three little girls by 1955, Dad once told me he had searched daily newspapers for updates on the development of a polio vaccine. Born in 1959, I was still quite young when Dad sat me down to tell me it was a monumental day. We were about to go to the gymnasium of the school he graduated from to be given a new polio vaccine in liquid form.
Dressed in my Sunday best for this outing, I was thrilled that it came in a tiny white paper cup and not in a needle, not grasping this miracle of modern medicine.
What stayed with me is my father’s demeanor; he wanted me to feel and respect the enormity of the moment. The generations before us had lived in fear of polio, the unseen, unknown horror of it, landing with a vengeance in communities during the summer months.
My parents knew families cut by its cruelty, and they understood the weight of its life-changing ravages. Dr. Jonas Salk, my father said, should be a hero in everyone’s eyes.
All these years later, that day from the 1960s walked along with me for a moment. There is no doubt we were living through another monumental day when my husband and I took my mother, 87, for the single-dose COVID-19 vaccine the first week it was available.
Waiting in a very long line, surrounded by people wearing masks, some talking and laughing, others looking as though they would rather be just about anywhere else, I thought of my Dad. He would have given anything to protect his family.
Time marching on had turned the tables, and now it was my turn to do what I could to protect my mother.
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