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Issue Number 29
November 9, 1998
UNPROTECTED PEOPLE: Stories of
people who have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases
- Story #5: "I AWOKE ONE MORNING
UNABLE TO WALK"
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One day, three-year-old Sharon Karber awoke
unable to walk. It was 1953. Polio had reached epidemic proportions in the United States,
and Sharon had become another polio victim. This is her personal story which originally
appeared in "Michigan Immunization Update," spring 1997. It is entitled,
"Through a child's eyes: a child's polio experience." As Sharon says, "this
is a true story told through the eyes of one child who experienced a crippling
vaccine-preventable disease and was rehabilitated. Not everyone was as lucky."
Today, Ms. Karber, a registered nurse, is a nurse consultant at the Michigan
Department of Community Health. Here is her story:
Through a child's eyes: a child's polio experience
Contributed by Sharon Karber, RN, MSN, Nurse Consultant,
Michigan Department of Community Health
For me and my family, the crippling effects of polio will never be forgotten. It was the
spring of 1953, and a polio epidemic was occurring in Michigan and the rest of the
country. During that year, 2,346 polio cases were diagnosed in Michigan, and, at almost
three years of age, I became one of those statistics. I awoke one morning unable to walk
had to be admitted to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, where I spent
the next seven months.
I recall seeing my parents through a glass door during my stay at the hospital. As I
learned later in life, polio patients were quarantined in order to both protect the polio
patients from acquiring respiratory infections from visitors and in order to contain the
spread of polio to those with whom they might have contact. Eventually it became normal to
see my parents only on weekends because they had to travel two hours,
one way, to see me. Rehabilitation therapy during those seven months included hot packs to
my legs, whirlpool treatments, passive leg exercises and learning to walk with braces and
crutches. I was discharged from Mary Free Bed Hospital after seven months of therapy under
the condition that my mother would continue to administer my leg exercises. This meant
that three times a day she would place me on the kitchen table and massage, stretch and
strengthen my leg muscles.
Grade school years were very difficult because of my braces and crutches. It was
impossible to run and play like other kids. I required leg surgeries (including four weeks
in a cast) every summer until I was 12 years old in order to correct deformities,
reposition muscles, and reattach tendons for better leg and foot control. Eventually I
graduated from needing braces and crutches, but then came the mis-mate orthopedic saddle
shoes. I remember pleading with my mother to buy me regular shoes but the answer was
always "no," because the shoes had to be orthopedically built and had to
accommodate a two shoe-size difference in foot size.
Junior high school was my first normal school experience. I had at last reached my maximum
ability where nothing further could be done to improve the functioning of my legs. I was
now able to compete in gym class, wear normal shoes, and cheerlead with the best of my
peers. My residual physical limitations were minimal, but what a long road I had traveled
with that polio villain!
My experience with this disease was nothing compared to what my parents endured seeing
their child go through years of physical limitations and rehabilitation. Until the day my
mother died, tears would always come to her eyes when she told her side of this story. To
write my story now, as an adult and as a mother, makes my heart ache for my mother, who
suffered emotionally because of my disease. Physically losing parenting responsibilities
of her youngest child and then having that once-normal child return physically disabled
from a disease that a
vaccine could have prevented (had it been discovered earlier) caused terrible guilt for
her. I strongly believe my rehabilitation and level of functioning today would not have
been possible without her unending devotion in performing my daily leg exercises,
compliance with years of physician visits and consents for numerous surgeries.
Today, I have my own family and am a nurse consultant for the Michigan Department of
Community Health working with the Immunization Division. My life has come full circle as I
now spend much of my time as a strong advocate for immunizations. I believe the work I do
to educate health care providers in Michigan about the importance of vaccinating all
children on time will help prevent potentially devastating diseases. It is my hope that no
child will ever have to suffer any disease that can be prevented by vaccines. This is a
true story told through the eyes of one child who experienced a crippling
vaccine-preventable disease and was rehabilitated. Not everyone was as lucky.
VIDEO: "A PARALYZING FEAR: THE STORY OF POLIO IN AMERICA" IS A VIDEO WORTH
Polio survivors like Ms. Karber talk about their frightening battle with the crippling
disease in "A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America," a 90-minute
documentary that chronicles the polio era from epidemic to vaccine which aired on PBS in
October 1998. This documentary video can now be purchased directly from PBS for $19.95.