Phyllis McGuire: Like the polio epidemics, this storm will pass

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Do you remember the first time you saw the word quarantine? I do.

When my sister Claire was diagnosed with scarlet fever, a quarantine sign was posted on the front door of the apartment in the Bronx where my parents, two sisters and I lived.

I did not know the meaning of quarantine then, but I knew Claire was taken to the hospital and I missed her.

I did not understand why my eldest sister, Gloria, and I were not allowed to leave the house. I wanted to play in the park, swooshing down the slide and reaching for the sky on a swing.

Mother tried to keep me amused at home, giving me crayons and coloring books and cut-out paper doll books. We did not have a television set, so Gloria and I played checkers and did jigsaw puzzles, but boredom would set in before long.

Sort of like playing games on the computer and watching TV can become boring to those of us who are now "staying home" in following government guidelines in this trying time when a coronavirus pandemic is turning our lives upside down.

For most of us living independently, there is always housework to keep us busy. And now I could tackle chores I put off "until I have time," such as cleaning out closets and the catch all drawer in the kitchen, and organizing the linen closet, but that definitely is not a substitute for interacting socially. I want to be with friends lunching in restaurants and playing Scrabble.

Back when Claire caught scarlet fever, Mother did not just clean our home; she did her best to sanitize it. She boiled our eating utensils, soaked our towels and bed linens in boiled water and scrubbed them on a washboard.

Father, a physical education teacher in a public school who could not go to work because we were under a quarantine order, helped Mother wash the walls of the bedroom my sisters and I shared.

Claire recovered, our quarantine was lifted and the familiar rhythm of our lives resumed I suppose ignorance was bliss for me as I never feared I would catch scarlet fever.

When the polio epidemics of the 1940s and '50s claimed the lives of thousands of children, I was old enough to realize I was not invulnerable to that dreaded disease.

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There was no escaping from the harsh reality: Newspaper headlines blared the number of victims of the polio virus. In the United States, nearly 60,000 cases of polio were recorded in 1952 alone.

News programs announced the cancellation of events due to the polio epidemic. In movie theaters, audience members were seated several feet apart. Public pools and beaches closed.

On sweltering summer days, a bold boy in my neighborhood wrenched open a fire hydrant, and using a wooden board, sent the gushing water into the air. In the resulting spray, children, some in street clothes, frolicked and cooled off.

I would go home and put on my bathing suit and an old pair of shoes.

"Now remember, just for a few minutes," Mother would say as I went out the door. Mother suspected that getting a chill could usher in polio.

I cringed when I saw photos in newspapers of children in iron lungs, their heads jutting out of the machines encasing their bodies. I felt so sorry for them, but I also thought of myself: "That could be me."

And a stiff neck filled me with fear — it was not only painful but worse a symptom of polio.

Polio was called the summer scourge and seemed to be an unstoppable disease. Then, Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin developed vaccines against polio, and through successful immunization programs, polio was eradicated in the United States in 1979.

Now scientists are working diligently to develop a vaccine to protect us from the coronavirus.

And let all of us be strong. After mighty storms, a beautiful rainbow appears.

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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