Sure, the economy is a mess and the future isn’t looking so hot. But we’ve had big problems before — we’ve solved them before.
According to the book “SuperFreakonomics,” it would be hard to invent a more frightening illness. Polio struck children. Nobody knew how it was contracted. There was no prevention or cure. And it hit hard every summer.
My Aunt Cece contracted polio in the summer of 1951, just as she was starting the eighth grade.
She came home from school with a high temperature, feeling very ill. The next morning, her legs gave out as she tried to get out of bed. By that evening, she was so weak she could barely move.
The public was in such a panic that the ambulance driver wouldn’t take her to the hospital for fear that other patients might become infected.
The Health Department quarantined her family — a notice was placed on their front door. My mother and her four other siblings were forbidden to leave their home or accept visitors for two weeks, the lifespan of the virus.
Within two weeks, polio had ravaged my aunt’s body. Her arms and legs were paralyzed to varying degrees. She could barely lift her head. It would be a year before she could go home. She would need crutches for the rest of her life.
In 1952, America had its worst bout with the virus. More than 57,000 polio cases were reported nationwide. Of those, 3,000 died and 21,000 were paralyzed permanently.
Had a preventive for polio not been found, say the authors of “SuperFreakonomics,” the United States would now be caring for at least 250,000 long-term polio patients at an annual cost of $30 billion.
In the 1950s there was an abundance of fear and doubt. But we didn’t dwell on what was wrong. We did what Americans always do. We focused on the solution.
The March of Dimes — the largest charitable army the country had ever known, according to David M. Oshinsky, author of “Polio: An American Story” — mobilized millions to raise money.
A long line of researchers, including Jonas Salk, refused to accept defeat. Together, we won. On April 12, 1955, Salk’s vaccine was declared safe and effective.
It’s easy to find clarity regarding events that took place about 50 years ago, but polio in the ’50s certainly was dire. We responded well to the challenge.
Though her legs were left partially paralyzed, my Aunt Cece dwelled on what she could do, not on what she couldn’t. It took her two years of rehabilitation before she was able to get around on her own. She’d eventually marry and have four children and seven grandchildren.
We are in the midst of significant challenges now. Our economy is stagnant. We’re on an unsustainable spending path. There is an uneasy sense that things will get plenty worse before they get better.
But we’ve been here before — hello, late 1970s — and good people came forward with new ideas, innovations and government policies that resolved our problems.
We kicked polio’s butt, and I’m hopeful we’ll do likewise to the challenges facing us now.