Janet Wolter: Life in the Polio Ward


The polio vaccine was licensed in 1955 and has led to near worldwide eradication of what once was among the most feared maladies on earth, but the World Health Organization declared a polio outbreak last year an international public health emergency. The latest cases prompted 89-year-old emeritus professor of medicine Janet Wolter, MD, to recall her own experiences as a doctor in the years before Salk’s vaccine.

My first impression when I walked into the huge ward was of the strange rhythm/non-rhythm, visual and auditory, of 10 rocking beds moving at different rates and inclinations, sometimes in synchrony but more often not, and the punctuating steady whoosh-whoosh of two iron lungs. The people in and on these devices were still faceless to me, but the memory of the sight of those balletic arcs and their attendant sounds is still haunting after almost 60 years.

When my postgraduate training in internal medicine was completed in June 1955, I was sure that I wanted an academic future, but still unsure of the specialty to spend it in. (I chose oncology, eventually.) The chief of medicine asked me to take a new position as attending physician under a pulmonary specialist in a recently completed polio ward. I accepted the job and was catapulted into a world of pumps, tracheotomies and physiatry.

The University of Illinois Research and Educational Hospitals in Chicago had been chosen by the March of Dimes to be one of 12 respiratory and rehabilitation centers distributed across the country. This one was to serve the large area around Chicago, including southern Michigan, northern Indiana, southern Wisconsin and eastern Iowa.

Liberation from iron lungs

These centers were dedicated to polio victims after they were past — sometimes long past — the acute episode, often existing in iron lungs at home or in non-specialized long-term care facilities. The goal was to get them out of iron lungs, if possible, and to provide optimal physical and occupational therapy and manageable prosthetics. (No cast iron!) The high incidence of polio in the years 1952 and 1953 (and subsequently 1955 itself) had left many people in sorry states. The centers did not take children, but there were many teenagers and young adults needing rescue.

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