Woman recalls the last big polio outbreak in the U.S.

Jean Graber contracted polio in 1952 after a trip to the Kansas State Fair. She talks about the importance of the polio vaccine and how the disease affected her. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)
Jean Graber contracted polio in 1952 after a trip to the Kansas State Fair. She talks about the importance of the polio vaccine and how the disease affected her. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)


A trip to the Kansas State Fair turned her life upside down with polio

By Kaitlyn Alanis


November 13, 2017 08:30 AM

Jean Graber cannot remember life before the 1952 Kansas State Fair — the week polio changed her life.

Graber, now 71, was 6 when she and her younger sister Susan went to the fair like they always had.

“On the way home, Susan and I were both real cranky and fussy,” Graber said.

The next morning they woke up vomiting and with high fevers. Their mom took them to the doctor in her hometown of Meade.

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He had them complete basic tests, like lifting their heads back and forth.

Graber, now of Pretty Prairie, could not do it.

“He said, ‘I think you better get them to Hutch hospital. This is polio,’” Graber said. Susan was sent home with a very light case – or no case – of polio.

Graber was not so fortunate. She stayed overnight.

“All through the night I felt like there were boogers in my nose because I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “And then I looked over and there was this funnel-looking thing with a black cord on it. I think it must have been oxygen, but nobody ever told me what to do with it.”

Her fever got too high.

It was that night that she was placed in an iron lung, an airtight tank respirator that she said resembles a “tin can on wheels.” The iron lung created negative pressure that would move her chest up and down to simulate breathing while she would lay flat.

It breathed for her twenty-four hours a day for six weeks.

Those six weeks in an iron lung and the following three-month hospitalization would have a lasting impact on her life.

“I didn’t like it,” she said. “I felt real claustrophobic around my neck. And I’m claustrophobic today. I don’t like tight clothes around my neck.”

She is sure her claustrophobia is a result of the raw skin around her neck caused by six weeks in an iron lung, the most common treatment to 1950s polio patients who were unable to breathe on their own due to paralyzed chest muscles.

Polio, a potentially fatal disease, can invade an infected person’s brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis. The virus lives in an infected person’s throat and intestines, according to the CDC.

Upside-down polio, which is rare, means her legs are fine, but her neck and head have limited movement. She has no use of her left arm and only partial use of her right arm.

“I don’t remember life before polio – I really don’t,” Graber said. “When I came home from the hospital I looked like a child from a concentration camp. I lost more than a third of my body weight as a 6-year-old ... it bothers me a lot.”

The last big epidemic

Graber was diagnosed with polio in 1952, which is what she considers “the last big epidemic in the United States.”

The vaccine, while first introduced in 1955, was not commonly used until 1958.

“I just missed it,” she said. “There was a whole gob of us who just missed it.”

And just missing it has brought more challenges than she would have expected.

“My life is on a regimen,” she said.

To this day, she is required to do a 10-minute breathing treatment every two hours.

Abusing, neglecting

Having just missed a vaccine that could have saved her from polio, Graber does not understand why some parents are part of the anti-vaccine movement.

“I think parents are abusing, neglecting ... their children by not offering them a vaccine that is proven ... to work,” she said. “The polio vaccine does work.

“It just seems stupid not to take the precautions that you know do work,” she continued.

But Graber understands that some might not understand what it is like to have polio, which is why she finds it important to never let people forget.

She, along with others in a polio-support group of about 60 members based out of Hutchinson, filled a trunk with information. The trunk travels from school to school to teach fifth-grade students about polio.

The members also are working on a book that tells the stories of polio survivors.

“What’s it like to have polio?” she tells others. “You leave your left arm limp, you can’t raise your right arm, you have to (complete breathing treatments) every two hours.”

Life as a polio survivor

Walk into Graber’s home and at first glance you won’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

“We seem pretty normal around here,” she said.

But try to turn on a light and you won’t find the light switch at its normal level. Rather, you will find the light switches at a height where Graber’s hands can reach without her having to raise them even the slightest.

She has other switches that help open the windows. She has foot pedals to turn the faucets on.

Her car has a special steering set that allowed her to drive to school to teach students 35 miles away for 38 years.

“Life goes on,” with the help of her husband, Curtis Graber, she said. “You take what you have and you do with it what you can,” she said. “I had no choice. I chose to do what I had to do to live the way I wanted to live.”

She can only hope others take advantage of the vaccine choices now offered and encouraged by doctors.

“Polio is only an airplane ride away,” she said. “We could have an epidemic here again.”

Kaitlyn Alanis: 316-269-6708, @kaitlynalanis