“As the majority of people infected … have no symptoms and are unaware of their infection, the virus may spread through a large population before even being recognized.”

Sound familiar?

It’s not about Covid-19; it’s a reference to Canada’s polio epidemic. Most people with the disease had no symptoms; about five per cent developed mild symptoms and less than one percent developed limb paralysis. Of those, five to ten percent died. Between 1949 and 1954 about 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed and in 1953 alone, 500 died, the most serious national epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to the Canadian Public Health Association.

My dad with my brother and sister a couple of months before he got sick.

In 1953, about six weeks before I was born, my dad, a millwright in the paper mill here in Powell River, got polio. He had mild symptoms for several days, my mom says. “He’d be standing in the bathroom shaving, saying his neck hurt. I finally got the doctor who thought it might be meningitis.”

While Dad was hospitalized, Mom noticed he wasn’t moving one of his arms properly. His symptoms were classic. He was flown to Vancouver and put in an iron lung as muscle function in his lungs deteriorated.

“It was quite bad because after he got flown down, we’d phone and they said he hasn’t reached the crisis yet – it was about ten days until he reached the crisis. It was,” she says, “a terrible time.”

My mother remembers standing beside a man, both of them looking in at their spouses lying in the iron lungs, the ventilators. The next day, the man wasn’t there and the nurses explained that his wife had died.

Mom and my one-year-old brother and three-year-old sister were injected with gamma globulin, an immune booster. There was no vaccine. I was born in December and six months later taken to see my father for the first time. My mom loves to tell me how the sight of my chubby red cheeks cheered him right up.

Dad lived, but he was one of the unlucky ones whose paralysis was permanent. It’s not like spinal cord paralysis that cuts off all feeling below the injury; the polio virus kills the motor neurons that activate muscles and they don’t regenerate. Rehab can bring some improvement and after about three years, my dad could walk, with support, and use his arms and hands.

Outside our new house.

By the fall of 1957, he was able to move with us into the house he’d been building when he got sick. Mom had gone back to work teaching and we managed quite well. Dad was able to be home on his own during the day and he was there when we came home from school.

It wasn’t easy – he had a temper and would get very frustrated as he tried to get us to do chores around the house or painstakingly teach us to do something he could have done in a second.  But I suspect the tensions were no more than was normal in most houses. Our family activities were limited, but he found ways to extend his mobility. He had a friend build him a wheelchair made of copper pipes that was very light and easy to pack when we went visiting. One summer Mom drove us all in our Vauxhall station wagon to Saskatchewan to visit his family. I think she had just learned to drive. He encouraged her to continue with summer school courses and finish her education degree, and later to apply for a job as a school principal.

While Mom was at school one summer, Dad stayed at Pearson Hospital where he had spent time in rehabilitation. Many polio survivors had been there for years, some in iron lungs or rocking beds. We felt lucky indeed we could bring our dad home.

When we had a house built down here at Grief Point in 1968, he and a neighbour, also a millwright, designed its elevator. But less than two years later, he developed symptoms of post-polio syndrome, which no one knew much about then. He died suddenly in his sleep Feb. 11, 1970.

My father had a life beyond his wheelchair; he worked as a bookkeeper, he read, played bridge, and loved a good argument. He was also very aware of how people with disabilities were judged and taught us that labels mattered. Cripple was still a common name for folks like him; he hated it. He was a paraplegic, he insisted. Disabled. Today, we often imagine how much fuller his life could have been with an electric scooter and a computer.

As of today, there are over half a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 around the world and about 25,000 deaths. According to the Canadian International Immunization Initiative, at the peak of its spread, polio “paralyzed or killed over half a million people worldwide every year.”

I used to get upset when people didn’t vaccinate their kids because our family experienced directly what diseases like polio can do. Now, when people talk about how we’re over-reacting, about the low percentage of people dying from Covid-19, I’m even more frustrated. It’s easy to forget that each one of those deaths is a loss to families, friends and communities.

Seeing those images of rows of people in ventilators in ICUs, I can’t help thinking of my father. How much pain he must have felt, how afraid he would have been. We have been through this before and I say, bravo! to those (that includes all of us) trying to stem the tide flooding the world right now.





22 thoughts on “Bravo!

  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story (and at such an apropos time), Sheila. It always amazes me what people can survive (and even thrive) through. Both your parents sound like amazing, inspiring people. (No wonder you turned out the way you did! :D)

  2. **Wanted to add: By saying I’m amazed at what we can survive/thrive through, I’m in no way making light of the struggle. 😦 😦 Polio was . . . brutal. I remember reading about it when I was a little kid and being terrified. Hopefully Covid-19 won’t become nearly as big a tragedy, but yes, the numbers affected hardly matter if you’re one of the few who die from it or someone you love is.

    My dad had Scarlet Fever as a young child and was sent to a Vancouver hospital where he languished for weeks (without parents because that wasn’t done – having parents in rooms). He very much believed in the importance of vaccines too.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful and timely post about your Dad and family. It is through your Dad’s experience that I learned about the polio epidemic. I love seeing the old photos that I don’t think I have seen before. Bravo to your whole family. Your mom and dad have a big place in my heart. Margaret

  4. Thank you Shiela. A story of survival and endurance beautifully written as always. There are many touching stories out there and we need to hear them in this time of uncertainty.
    Hope you and Lynn are keeping well. It’s a bit of a dusty ghost town here but we will isolate until it is safe to congregate once again.

  5. What an important and moving story to share right now, Sheila. Thank you so much. I would like to ask your permission to share a link to your story with my Facebook site. I think it’s a story which needs to be read and appreciated by as many people as possible.

    • Of course, Caroline. Thanks to you and the others commenting for their kinds words. As my mom and I walk around the block down here at Grief Point, we often talk about my dad.

  6. Thanks so much, Sheila, for this heartfelt reminder of what your family went through, and what they managed to overcome. Much love to your mum. She remains an inspiration.

  7. Hello,

    Thanks for sharing Sheila ❤ What a beautiful story about your family. Is the house he was building still there? I love the pictures you shared. I never knew what an iron lung looked like and it's quite remarkable. I love that you are back there and close to your mom.

    My great grandma Rosie Annie Omelak also had polio when she was really little (3?) and was paralyzed as a result. My mom was really close to her and called her mom and was raised by her mostly. My mom used to hide behind her wheelchair if she was afraid. My great grandma was great a sewing and would make dolls out of fur and other materials. She would give them to my mom who would bike downtown (which was more of a village) to sell them. Then she would pick up the list of things she would be directed to buy with the money. I believe it was sugar, tea and condensed milk.

    Lots of love,

  8. Thanks for your piece about your Dad ~ Timely with COvid-19 here. Amber was self-isolated with me for 2 weeks -just g=flew home today ~ We enjoyed reading poems by Val Napoleon, Ken Belford, Ross Hoffman etc. last night in the 1st Creekstone nice White book!
    All best to us all thru this Pandemic ~ & Light & Love

  9. Hello! I just found your blog for the first time. Thank you for sharing your family’s story. I find it intriguing not only because it parallels so closely what’s happening around us right now, but also because I was born in Powell River in October 1952. What school did your mother teach at and if you don’t mind sharing, what was her name? I attended JP Dallos Elementary from grades 1 to 5 (1957 to 1963) before we moved to Vancouver.

    Elaine @ Following Augustine

    • My grade 1 teacher was Mrs. Kay Joneson (not sure of the spelling). I started the year in someone else’s class, but due to higher than expected enrolment, Mrs Joneson was hired part way through September and a grade 1/2 class was formed. We had class in the gym until Christmas break and then spent the rest of the year in the little old schoolhouse on the school grounds. My sister, Linda, was three years behind me so it’s possible that she might have had your mother as her grade 1 teacher. I haven’t been back to Powell River in many years. I was hoping to visit in August, but who knows if we’ll be traveling this summer or not with the present health crisis.

      • I spoke to my sister and she’s pretty sure that your mom was her grade 1 teacher. As a retired teacher myself, I know that it’s hard to remember all your former students by name. David Bowes and Sandra Lee were two of our neighbouring children who would also have been in that class and there may have been a set of twins named Harold and Philip. I don’t remember their last name and I’m not absolutely sure that they were in the same grade.

  10. Sheila, it is through our stories that we can best relate to human tragedies, polio certainly was one of them, I never realized how high the stats were. This is important to read and to know we must do our best to ‘try to stem the flood right now.’. A very compassionate and real sharing of your Dad, beautiful.

  11. Hey, Sheila. Wonderful article. I remember your lovely dad and the house at Grief Point. As then, it’s hard to imagine when this will be over, what a return to “normal” will look like, and if there will be further ramifications from this virus in the future. It is a sobering and scary time. Isolation brings its own challenges. Wishing you and yours, well 💕 and hope to see you again at some point 😊. Glad you’ve made the move south. I can imagine how lovely it is to be “back home.”

  12. Pingback: The watershed of my childhood | Sheila Peters

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