Life After Polio – Hugh Marsh
“It’s always with you.” – Hugh Marsh
As told to Casey Lessard
Hugh Marsh is a former area resident whose family ties remain in and around Grand Bend. He has lived in California most of his life, and spent much of his career teaching engineering writing at the University of California Santa Barbara.
A polio survivor, Marsh has long fought for improved accessibility for people using wheelchairs.
I had just turned 14 in the summer of 1948; it was August 19th as I recall. We went to a family picnic at Springbank Park in London. My friend Greg Seabrook and I were playing miniature golf and running back to the picnic table where our families were; I could always beat in a foot race, but this time I couldn’t keep up with him.
That was a Friday night. Late afternoon Saturday, I went to go to the bathroom and I fell on the way to the bathroom and had to crawl in. That was the last time I walked.
I don’t remember the moment when they told me I’d never walk again. I don’t remember it being a traumatic time for me and I never had any psychological trauma from it. I’ve thought about the months in the hospital, and there must have been times when I was depressed, but I just kind of took it as it was. I always expected I would live a normal life, and my parents made my life as normal as possible.
I was in the War Memorial Children’s Hospital (in London, now Children’s Hospital of Western Ontario) from the 21st of August until the following May. For the first month, you’re in an isolation ward and really sick. The polio virus settles in the spine and, depending on where it settles, it affects you from below that point. If it settles behind your belly button, you become paraplegic. Mine was a wee bit higher than that, so it also affected my left arm a little, but that appeared later.
Those were the days when they kept you in the hospital. I recall it being a rather enjoyable time. There were five or six of us boys, and an old lady teacher would come in and give us our lessons, so I didn’t miss a grade of school as a consequence.
I don’t remember anything bad about the hospital at all. We were always getting into mischief. In the spring, there was a roof garden, and we would go up there and play on the roof. I had a big old wooden wheelchair and we were racing around on the roof one time. It had a board floor, and one of the wheels caught between the boards and flipped the chair over. It shattered into a pile of kindling.
I was treated pretty much as an ordinary kid, except for the fact that I had a wheelchair. My parents did what the doctors told them to do and that was not to do anything for me that I could do myself. I was taught to be independent and I pretty much was. When I was old enough, I got a driver’s license and hand controls for the car.
The biggest change was figuring out ways to get around. My dad always made it happen. But it was always something that we as a family had to deal with. I’ve dealt with access issues all of my life.
London Central High School had steps into it. My brother Barry, who was a couple of years younger than me, would simply pull me up the half dozen steps into the first floor. If I had to go to the second floor, a few of the boys would grab my wheelchair and lift me up the stairs. We’d find a way around it. Now, it looks a lot the same, but there are ramps and elevators, so you can get everywhere.
We moved to California in 1953 when I was 19, mostly for my father’s health because he had asthma. I went to college and did some graduate work. In my last year of college I was working full-time. I had married young and had a baby girl, so coping with polio had a real life lesson for me to deal with the issues I had to deal with myself. Polio taught me how to do that.
I got a job in the aerospace industry as a publication editor for a while. I started to run technical publications groups in the California area for a company making infrared spy satellite technology. While I was there, I was asked to teach a class in engineering writing at the University of California Santa Barbara. I taught one class and then they asked me to teach two. A few months later, they asked me to teach three and that meant full-time. I left aerospace and spent the last 20 years of my professional life at the university teaching, and I just loved it.
Pushing for access
I’ve been involved in all sorts of disabled rights groups here in California, and as a matter of fact I was information officer for the state’s department of rehabilitation for a couple of years between my years in aerospace. I’ve been very involved in getting access here. I’ll continue to be involved. It takes people who care about it to get in and do it. Change doesn’t come unless people who are involved participate in that change. That’s a must.
For every disabled person who needs access, there are up to a dozen people who the lack of access affects if they want to go places together. It’s taken a long time, but it’s slowly changing.
I remember I got a job at Aerojet, a big corporation. I was hired May 9, 1960, and they had to modify bathrooms so I could get into stalls, and offices had to be enlarged where I was working. There had to be access into the buildings I needed to go into, and there were some buildings that wasn’t possible, so I just wasn’t involved in working in those buildings. The publications department I worked in eventually got to be pretty accessible. Later on, when I worked in Sacramento for a few years, when I was part of the state government, I was essentially advocating for more access to businesses and public buildings in California. I’m still involved in that on a city council committee here in Santa Barbara.
It turns out that polio isn’t a disease that, once you’ve had it, you stay pretty much the same. I began to notice symptoms of increasing weakness and pain around 1980. My slightly weakened right arm became much weaker, and about 10 years ago I had to go from a manual wheelchair to a power chair. And, the progression of the weakness and pain hasn’t slowed down, even though I’ve been through various courses of physical therapy and pain management. Pain management has brought new problems that accompany the “hard drugs”, OxyContin and Norco in my case.
After the the Salk vaccine in the early 1950s, most research on polio stopped. Now it has picked up again, but – to my knowledge at least – no explanation for the phenomenon of post-polio syndrome has appeared, to say nothing of a cure.
Organizations like Rotary who put their financial resources behind the project are doing a tremendous amount to finally get rid of polio. It’s absolutely important to get to that final step. It was getting to the point where it was almost eradicated and a generation of young parents came along who weren’t sure that all of these vaccinations were good for children. There was an uptick again because parents weren’t having their children vaccinated. It’s a simple thing to do and it needs to be done.