Reg Copeman of Port Franks grew up in London, and in early 1952, he contracted polio at age 10. He has few aftereffects today, but the memory stays with him.
As told to Casey Lessard
I came back off summer holidays, and the first week of school I got feeling sick. They thought I had the flu or something, so they kept me home, but it kept getting worse. My doctor was an older fellow and didn’t really know what he was getting into. It got to the point where I couldn’t swallow food at all. My aunt would make me mashed potatoes, but it was like soup. I got really sick and the doctor sent an apprentice doctor to look at me. He put his hand on the back of my neck and pushed my forehead back. It was just like someone drove a knife into my back. He said, “Get him ready and call an ambulance; I think he’s got polio.”
A scary experience I was ten years old and really scared. I remember going from the main hospital where they did the tests on me down this long tunnel into the children’s hospital and into isolation immediately. The type of polio I had, you either get better or you die because it affects the muscles around your lungs. They get deteriorated to the point where the muscles don’t work. It kept getting worse and worse and they put me in an iron lung for a couple of months. You’re sealed in there. They alternate putting air pressure in and taking it away and that’s what makes your lungs work. There were two or three in the room where I was. The iron lung totally covers you and your head sticks out of the end. It’s sealed at the neck. They had sealed holes that they could stick things in or turn you over. Your whole world is a mirror in front of your face. Your relatives couldn’t come in the room with you. They stood outside in the hallway and talked to you through a window. If they brought you something, books or toys or whatever, the nurse would bring them into you. If you dropped an item on the floor, you couldn’t pick it up. The nurse would come in, pick it up and sterilize it, and it would be three or four days before they gave it back to you.
Survival story Once they got my lungs working again, it was back into isolation. That’s when I saw some of the other kids who were a whole lot worse than I was. There were crippled babies whose bodies were wasting away. I don’t know how many of those small kids survived. I kept in touch for years with one boy my age, and the last I heard he was still in Paris. He never did get the use of his legs back. I have no lasting effects that stop me from doing anything. I still have problems swallowing, and I have to be careful what I eat. To eat steak or any kind of beef, I have to make sure I cut it up into really small pieces and chew it well or I’ll choke. The rest of my body, the right side muscles are smaller than the left side. I have very little reflexes in the right side of my body. I have a lot of fun with doctors at examinations.
A sleeping giant I think about it all the time. They brought the vaccine out a year after I got out of the hospital. I remember my mother taking me to get the vaccine shot, and they told her I didn’t need it because I would never get polio again. It’s just like having chicken pox. Well, my younger sister adamantly refused to have her three kids vaccinated. When I found that out, I was very upset. We had little kids of our own at the time and I gave her quite a talking to. She figured no one gets it anymore. But that’s why we vaccinate. It’s a monster still out there lying there waiting for enough people foolish enough not to get the vaccinations. Once you’re affected, vaccinations won’t do anything. We’ve got it licked. Let’s keep it licked.