Personal Stories of Polio


I contracted polio at seven years in 1951 with paralysis on my left side. It was a frightening time as children died and were crippled. We were discouraged from speaking about polio and urged to throw away assistive devices so we could look as “normal” as possible.

Thirty-five years after polio I was diagnosed with Post Polio Syndrome! It is the result of failing motor neurons that had to bear more than 500 times their normal load since polio but can no longer do so. Post polio may cause a decline of muscles, the ability to walk, intolerance to cold, impaired breathing, lack of endurance and reactions to anaesthetics and medicines.

No one knows how or when or with what severity Post Polio will affect each person. Travel and retirement plans may need to be altered. I have had a series of operations so I can continue to walk. I have learned that assistive devices are beneficial as they allow me to be more mobile. I joined a post polio group for information, support and fellowship. I had polio but my husband and I have post polio because it has changed his life and plans so much too.

The polio vaccine was not available to me as a child but immunization is now available and I urge everyone, young and old, to make certain they are protected from the terrible consequences of polio and post polio syndrome.

Joan Toone
President, Post Polio Awareness and Support Society of British Columbia
Email: [email protected]

Grandparents: Polio could just be an airplane flight away
Are you old enough to remember polio epidemics in North America? Did you have a childhood friend who had polio? Please give your children the gift of your memories. Today some parents believe that there can be serious adverse effects from routine childhood vaccinations and therefore choose to bypass important vaccines such as the polio vaccine. They often know nothing about diseases that are now rare since the introduction of vaccines. We have learned that avoidance of vaccinations can be very risky.

ell your adult children about the disaster of polio: it is painful and frightening; it kills the nerves that make muscles work – sometimes even the ones that enable breathing. Have you ever seen an iron lung? Can you imagine your grandchild living in one? Polio can, in a flash, rob children and young adults of their mobility – no more running, jumping, dancing – maybe no more walking, or perhaps struggling to walk with braces and crutches for the rest of your grandchild’s life. When parents decline the polio vaccine, it is more likely that a new polio epidemic will occur. The wild polio virus can enter Canada with a visitor from a country where polio is still endemic because vaccination is not yet universal. Polio can then affect families here because, when parents do not allow vaccination, the program is no longer universal here either.


Polio hit me in 1949, seven years before the Salk vaccine was available. It was severe and I was totally paralyzed – I could move no part of my body below my neck. Polio caused four months in hospital, a year away from school, six years of regular physiotherapy, financial disaster for my parents, emotional devastation for my entire family, leg braces, crutches, an awkward, rigid back brace all through high school, every summer devoted to another surgical effort to make walking and my mis-shapen spine more stable. It was not much of adolescence, but I was relatively lucky in my recovery, maybe because I had been a strong and athletic kid and I received good medical care. My hospital roommate never got back on her feet. Today, most doctors have never seen a case of acute polio; learning about the disease and its treatment would have to start from scratch.

I managed to make up the year of school I had missed and when I attended university I walked with just a cane and without braces. Happy end of story? No. Thirty-five years after my initial illness (age 46, a family, a challenging career) the effects of polio hit again: extreme fatigue, loss of stamina, and insidiously increasing muscle weakness. As my remaining overworked motor nerves wear out, there has been a lot of muscle pain, early arthritis, more rib and spinal deformity, guaranteed osteoporosis, and unwanted premature retirement. This is post-polio syndrome. Twenty years later the succession of losses continues and is unstoppable. Soon I will no longer be independent because my arms are weakening. I will not be able to support myself to walk or stand up, or even to reach for things in front of me. Otherwise, I am healthy and a young 69.

This is what polio could do to your unvaccinated grandchildren. Polio, and other serious diseases like measles, tetanus and diphtheria, can be prevented. Please talk with their parents about it!

Jean Wallace Donaldson
Port Moody, B.C.
Polio survivor
Board Member, Post-Polio Awareness and Support Society of British Columbia
Retired clinical psychologist