My Life As A Polio Survivor

September 2, 2014 Karie Youngdahl

Karen Chase (photo courtesy of the author)By Karen Chase


I was a sprouting ten-year-old girl in Westchester County, right outside of New York City, and all was well. I’d hop on my bike and help my older brother deliver newspapers up and down the streets of my town. I’d swim in Long Island Sound, a short bike-ride from our house. And I had a new baby sister! I was in fifth grade.     

One day while walking home from school for lunch, kicking a stone down the road, my legs began to hurt. After a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and glass of cold milk, I said, “Mom, I can’t go back to school today.”

My neck got stiff, my fever rose alarmingly, and what started as small pains turned into large ones. The doctor came and soon I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, diagnosed with polio.

A few months later in the spring of 1954, I was happily playing Monopoly with my friends on the polio ward at Grasslands Hospital in Westchester County. The radio was on. A voice announced that a doctor named Jonas Salk had invented a vaccine to prevent polio. Some of us turned silent, some of us laughed, and one patient blurted out, “Too late for us!” Here we were, a group of ill children on stretchers and in wheelchairs living through an historical moment when polio’s peril was replaced by joy and relief.

After several years of braces, wheelchairs, a full-length body cast, and a spinal fusion, I was back at school, a plucky ninth grader. I was a polio survivor, although I never thought of myself in those terms. For many decades, I never looked back. My polio became a distant memory.

This is not the case for many polio survivors who were stricken before the advent of the Salk vaccine. So many people of my generation suffered from not only the active disease, but from years of disability afterwards. That is one reason among many that I have finally written POLIO BOULEVARD, the story of my illness and its aftermath.

For those of you who have the opportunity to protect your children with the polio vaccine, think of those ill children on the polio ward. Do not hesitate for one moment. You and your families are beyond lucky to be able to avoid this paralyzing disease.

Karen Chase's memoir POLIO BOULEVARD was released on September 1 by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of State University of New York Press. You can find the book on Ms. Chase is a poet and essayist who lives in western Massachusetts.


Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Can you give me some more information on Post Polio Syndrome that you might have been aware about? My wife had polio as a child and recovered in an year with some residual atrophy in one leg.

Posted by samari fleming (not verified)

Hi My Name Is Samari Fleming i am doing a project on polio i wanted to ask you more about polio