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Remembering polio as we shelter in place from COVID-19

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Sherry Young and her great-granddaughter Daisy on a happier day than one sheltering at home.

Provided by Sherry Young

I don’t know about you, but after a couple of weeks of social distancing, life is getting pretty slow at times. My husband, Grit, and I are being obedient because we have seen these plagues come and go through the years, and are hopeful this one will be contained and there will be a vaccine soon and things can get back to normal.

It’s very different for our children, especially those with young children, trying to keep them content. No one likes to be cloistered unless it’s a life choice. We are missing our grandchildren, which was the reason we moved away from Connecticut in the first place, so I, like you, am hoping people heed the warnings so this chaos will end sooner than later. 

I was a child of World War II so I know of panic and rationing. My father served as a radio operator in the Navy on a destroyer in the Pacific, so I know about fear and worry even at 5 years old. When the enemy planes came, their first target was to take out the radio tower. My prayers were filled with pleadings to keep my father safe — and gratefully they were answered. 

Next came the polio scare, which was another fearful time coming fairly soon on the heels of World War II. Mothers hovered over their children, warning them with pictures of people in the iron lung machine, filling all with fear. At the height of the crisis, I wasn’t allowed to go swimming all one summer. That was hard, especially as I lived in Farmington, Utah, the “Fun Spot of Utah” with that huge welcoming pool that I wickedly did sneak down to once with my friend Nancy. 

Primary was on a weekday in those years. I remember a song we sang every week while we marched around the room to put our pennies and nickels in a jar, hoping to help the cause:

“Five pennies make a nickel, two nickels make a dime, ten dimes will make a dollar, and  we’ll make it shine. It’s for the crippled children who cannot walk or run, who have to    stay in bed all day and cannot join our fun. So let us all be unselfish and bring our  pennies here, to help the crippled children become stronger year by year. Let’s march along and sing our song and pray that they may be, a little stronger every day because of you and  me.”

Gratefully a vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk. We received our vaccinations at school, and the polio shot was given to all schoolchildren in America in the early ’50s. We would line up around the room nervous and giggling but would bravely raise our sleeves in compliance. We didn’t want to be the ones with lifelong damage had occurred for so many others. 

There have always been illness that swept the world since the beginning of time. In 1918, the Spanish flu could pass so quickly a person could be well in the morning and be dead by nighttime.

1957 brought the Asian flu with a few outbreaks in the summer of 1957. It was spread widely once the students went back to school. I was away at college in my first year at Brigham Young University. I do not remember any panicking about it, people just got sick and some left school, but I don’t remember any deaths. I did not get it, but in the second wave that went through many elderly died. Then there was the Hong Kong flu in 1968, the swine flu in 1976, the Russian flu in 1977 as well as the avian flu in 1997 and A/H9N2 in 1999. 

A difference with COVID-19 that stands out to me is that parents in the 50s were worried about their children getting the polio virus. With the coronavirus, our kids are worried about us. They constantly remind us to stay out of stores and practice social distancing, because anyone older than 60 is more subject to serious complications or death. 

I worry that we are overreacting this time because it has been such a total shutdown. I fear there will be a lot of economic turmoil for awhile because of it. Can we rise above it? I think that is what we are all hoping will happen, and quickly. 

There are some rewards of all this, and for many it is understanding the importance of family. Our son Jim and wife, Shamberlin, invited our granddaughter Andie Wells over for the weekend. They had been together often in the last month, so didn’t feel they were endangering each other. Jim has three boys and two girls ages 14 to 2, and the Wells have two girls, 3 years old and a baby. They held church with everyone participating doing the various responsibilities. Six-year-old Emē was so excited because she was able to lead the singing. Because Andie’s husband Brady is a medical student, they could stay on a few more days, and both mothers were delighted to see their children keep each other happy.

In the meantime I am pining for my family who I only see on social media, and as Grit and I are the family elders, we are hoping to stay well through this current flu siege.