Not long ago I was chatting with David McClimon, seeking help with a 1953 photograph. David said, “Sorry I can’t help you with that – I was in an iron lung in 1953.”
His words brought it all back.
Today the scourge of polio seems all but forgotten, but it was a dreadful infectious illness that commonly caused muscle atrophy, until Dr. Jonas Salk created a vaccine to prevent its occurrence, in 1953.
Two years later the vaccine was perfected to the point that a massive vaccination program against this frightening disease was established throughout the Western world.
The greatest polio epidemic to hit Victoria was in 1953, the Victoria Daily Colonist recorded, with 80 patients treated at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
The news that four Sooke boys were hospitalized in the epidemic took the community by storm.
As these photos show, our local high school boys were Jim Baker, Bob Hodges, Dan Lajeunesse and David McClimon. Members of a Sooke team competing for the BC Juvenile Softball championships, they travelled to Vancouver together on the CPR ferry. It remains a puzzle how they had each fallen ill to the crippling disease one after the other.
Bob Hodges was treated in a rocking bed while David McClimon’s case required his confinement to an iron lung. Thankfully, each boy did recover use of their limbs, though not entirely without long-lasting effects.
Another name for poliomyelitis was “infantile paralysis,” though its victims were certainly not limited to youngsters.
One of the most famous victims diagnosed with polio, at age 39, was the remarkable Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, despite that he’d lost the use of his legs, went on to become a four-term elected president of the United States.
David McClimon, the most seriously affected, has allowed us to include an account he wrote years ago: “The summer of 1953 saw me in an iron lung – the first one, a terribly old contraption made mostly of wood. Later, I was upgraded to a more modern model … If I learned anything from my polio experience, it’s to avoid iron lungs if at all possible!
“Other things very much worth mentioning have to do with the compassion, help, and love that come from family, nurses, doctors and friends.
“My memories include nurses wrapping hot steaming cloths around my limbs, the crunching sound as doctors (despite my advice not to do so) cut a hole in my throat, my favourite uncle from the Yukon looking down at me with obvious concern, my favourite mom and dad gazing at their favourite (only) son with tears in their eyes, my two fine sisters so worried, the ceaseless noise from the lungs, the incessant drip from the damn intravenous and the stomach tube poked through my nose all the way to what must have been my toes.
“Finally, following all this, I can so easily recall my first real taste of food (a poached egg) after not able to eat for so long. And such memories must also include my joy in realizing as time went by that I was slowly getting back some control of my young body.”
Today David McClimon is a member of a post-polio support society. Experience has shown that many polio survivors find that, years later, they are affected by symptoms relating to the earlier illness.
While the breakthrough in preventing polio was made by Dr. Jonas Salk, we are reminded that it was Dr. Albert Sabin, who perfected an easy-to-take oral vaccine a few years later.
While this 1953 episode was the most dramatic in our area, we are aware of a number of others who suffered with polio as well, including Karl Linell, Ray Vowles, Karen Longland, and Adele Lewis. Lydia Van Ek was another youngster stricken.
The Van Eks were a Dutch family who had come to stay at the Woodside farm with the Wilfords after the war, and Pete Wilford recalls that his dad Phil made Lydia her first crutches. Lydia continues to require a leg brace all these years later.
The Sooke Rotary Club is part of an international effort to see that polio is eradicated in all corners of the globe, and we can only be thankful, that our younger generations today are so fortunate that, thanks to the vaccine, polio has not crossed their paths.
Elida Peers is the historian of the Sooke Region Museum.