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The Final Countdown

By Katherine Batenhorst
Group photo by Kate Gardiner

Polio. When you hear that word, how do you react? For most in their 20s and 30s, the word may register a hint of recognition, and that’s it. For those in their 60s and older, however, or those who had a relative who contracted polio, the thought of the disease harkens memories of seclusion, heartache, and fear – literally paralyzing fear.

A highly infectious disease, poliomyelitis (polio) can cause paralysis and, sometimes, death. While polio can be contracted at any age, per the World Health Organization, it mainly affects children under five. According to the Centers for Disease Control, no cases of polio have originated in the United States since 1979. However, a polio outbreak in the United States in the early 1950’s changed the way people carried on with their day-to-day lives. “We were scared. We didn’t go to the pool. We didn’t go play with friends. We didn’t go to the movies. But, when we did go to the movies, they showed pictures of people in iron lungs, so we were scared again,” recalls Bobby Meade, a Rotary club member for more than 50 years. Living with polio changed individuals and families. Marie Turnbull remembers that her mother, Nancy Marti, who contracted polio at age 19 that temporarily paralyzed her from the neck down, couldn’t use her right hand as a result of the complications of contracting the disease. “Polio made Mom’s right hand nonfunctional, so she had to learn to be left-handed. When she wanted to reach something higher than her chest, she would lift her good arm up and put her right arm under for support,” says Marie. Mrs. Marti was told she wouldn’t be able to have children, as necessary mid-section muscles were thought to be too compromised. “She must not have believed that,” Marie chuckles, “because I am the third of five children.”

Polio isn’t curable, so during the 1950’s outbreak, health care providers were tasked with assisting to compensate for loss of various physical abilities, like walking or breathing. A retired registered nurse, who grew up in St. Augustine and worked at Grady Hospital in Atlanta for 35 years, recalls patients being in iron lungs, a machine that could maintain respiration artificially if polio had paralyzed the muscles an individual needed for breathing. “It was very hard to provide good personal hygiene care to the patients in iron lungs,” she reflects. “And, when we’d have a patient in one, I remember all of us hoping, ‘Please don’t let the power go out.’” Today, iron lungs are mostly a thing of the past, although a few people in the U.S. still depend on them.

A thought that conjures up excitement, anticipation, and possibility is that polio may soon be a disease of the past, worldwide. With only 13 cases of wild poliovirus reported across the globe so far in 2018, eradication efforts are moving in the right direction. Only one disease, smallpox, has been eliminated using vaccines, per UNICEF. Polio could be next, thanks to the power of two tiny drops of vaccine and one big organization, Rotary. While polio, once contracted, can’t be cured, it is entirely preventable through vaccines. Rotarians in St. Augustine and St. Johns County are contributing to the fight against polio. Local clubs donate to Rotary International’s “End Polio Now” campaign, and some have sent boots-on-the ground volunteers. Marie Turnbull’s direct experience with her mother’s polio inspired her to join the Rotary Club of St. Augustine Beach and travel to India with a Rotary “National Immunization Day” team. She experienced, first-hand, the impact of Rotary’s efforts to address needs in communities across the world. Local Interact clubs, Rotary-sponsored groups at the high school level, are doing their part to help wipe out polio, too. Interact members at St. Augustine High School (SAHS) have sold purple glow bracelets at one home football game every year since 2004. Why purple? Because immunization teams show who has been given the vaccine by painting one of the recipient’s pinky fingers purple. “It’s a great to see the stands glowing with purple to represent eradicating polio. The kids really love it because they know that, thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, their efforts will be tripled,” states SAHS teacher and Interact sponsor/Rotarian, Suzanne Stauble, referring to support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that matches two dollars for every dollar given toward eradication efforts.

While Rotarians are continuing the fight to eliminate polio in three more countries, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, it doesn’t mean that’s their only project aimed at fulfilling their motto of “Service Above Self.” Clubs in St. Johns County support a variety of programs, both with their time and money, from providing scholarships to picking up trash on beaches and at schools to bringing clean water options to communities in the US and abroad. Rotary Club of St. Augustine President Bobby Crum summed up Rotary’s involvement well, saying, “This year’s presidential message is ‘Be the Inspiration.’ We’re working on doing that and living that every day.”

For more information about Rotary clubs in St. Johns County, please visit our Rotary District Website Here.