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How Polio Changed Us, The Medical World

Quote. I was sick for three days before my parents could get me into town to a doctor. By then, my legs were paralyzed, and I had trouble breathing. When I got to the hospital, I went in the iron lung right away, and they couldnít start the hot packs and muscle stretching until I came out. End Quote. Peg Kehret, 1996

Polio patients were most vulnerable in the acute stage, when the virus was actively destroying the motor neurons that controlled the muscles connected to swallowing, breathing, and limb movement. Although there was, and is, no cure for polio, endangered lives could be saved. Doctors and nurses used technology, experience, and vigilance to keep patients alive until the infection ran its course, and recovery began.

bullet The poliovirus can destroy up to 60 percent of the motor neurons (which control muscle movement) before any symptoms of weakness or paralysis appear.
bullet Before Sister Kenny brought her controversial massage, exercise, and hot-pack treatment to the United States in 1940, the accepted treatment for polio was to immobilize patients with rigid splints and casts.

“I left Providence Hospital in the spring of 1953, fully a year after the onset of my illness. It had become my home…. The Sisters, the nurses, the doctors, and the cleaning staff had become my friends, and I was loathe to let them go…. It was a closed safe little world.”
—Hugh G. Gallagher, 1998

Left photo. A collection of tracheotomy tubes
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Right photo. A hospital room with an iron lung
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Left: Silver tracheotomy tube (late 19th century) for opening up the trachea (airway) through the neck; plastic trach tubes (1980s), and 1866 tracheotome used to make the incision in the neck
Right: Hospital ward in Salt Lake City, Utah Courtesy of Dr. W. H. Groves Latterday Saints Hospital, Salt Lake City, Utah

As with other epidemic diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis, polio brought fundamental changes to medical practice.

“Tracheotomy is a simple procedure; a cut is made through the trachea below the vocal cords and a silver breathing tube three inches long is inserted into the trachea. It extends directly to the lungs. By attaching a line from an oxygen tank directly to the trachea tube, the lungs are supplied with fresh oxygen without passing through the rather long passages of the nostrils and trachea clogged with fluids.”
—Hugh G. Gallagher, 1998

Left photo. A portable chest respirator, cuirass
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Right image. Child in crib with a hose stretching from a chest respirator to its chest
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Left: Modified vacuum cleaner and the cuirass, or portable respirator, that it pumped
Right: Child using cuirass respirator, 1950s Courtesy of Edna Hindson and Julie Silver

“The chest respirator … is a plastic affair that is strapped tightly over the chest and is operated by a motor; its action creates a vacuum which causes the chest to expand so that more air is drawn into the lungs.”
—Jim Marugg, 1954

Photo of splints
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Selection of splints of various types and materials used to immobilize patients during the acute stage of polio

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