Living Longer

Interview with Sharon Stern
Polio Survivor

Sharon Stern Q: Describe your first experience with polio... what happened?

Stern: I was nine years old... in the fourth grade. I was very athletic. I loved my bicycle and my skates, climbing, jumping, anything. It was October of 1954, and I awakened with a headache. My mother said I should stay home from school. I wanted to go because we had a spelling test and I didn't want the kids to think I was trying to get out of a test. Some kids used to do that sometimes. Anyway, I didn't go to school.

The next day was Saturday. I felt okay... I was running around and playing. I felt okay on Sunday too. I helped my father clean leaves off the roof. I was helping him carry buckets of heavy wet leaves and I seemed to be okay.

Then, Sunday night, I became extremely ill. I felt more terrible than I ever had before, with an indescribable headache... a terrible headache. At first I didn't tell my mother because I was afraid of doctors... I just didn't want her to call the doctor. But it suddenly became obvious that I was sick. My mother saw me huddled on my bed. I couldn't really move. I wasn't paralyzed... I just felt so sick.

So a doctor came, I believe that night, with our family doctor. I remember him lifting my leg and it was painful... that was kind of surprising. They gave me a small tablet. Maybe it was phenabarb... but I'm not sure. It was a tiny pill. But I couldn't swallow pills as a kid and it lodged in my tooth, I remember that. But I guess it went down eventually.

The next day my family doctor came back with two other specialists. They did a spinal tap on the kitchen table. I remember the doctor telling my father that it might be either polio or meningitis because the early symptoms are similar. My father said one's as bad as the other.

I wasn't quite sure what that meant but that evening I was brought to a hospital in Brooklyn. I remember having difficulty walking up the steps and that surprised me. My father offered to carry me up the steps but I walked in and I was there about three or four days.

Q: You must have been fightened...

Stern: Yes, it was very frightening. I was in a small room... the nurses didn't come when I called, especially at night... they were terrible nights. I remember waiting for my parents in the morning and every hour seemed like an eternity... Slowly my left leg became paralyzed. I remember I automatically started moving it with the right leg until it became paralyzed, but then I had trouble breathing. They put an oxygen tent over my bed, which didn't help, and they eventually rushed me to another hospital where they had iron lungs.

There was a doctor with me in the ambulance. He was holding a mask over my face... it must have been oxygen. I don't remember it helping much. I asked him if I was going to die... I thought I was; I couldn't imagine being so ill and living through it. It just seemed logical to me that I would die. I wanted to say goodbye to my parents. The doctor kept saying, "No, you're going to be fine." He was sort of compulsive. He kept repeating "You're going to be fine, you're going to be fine, you're going to be just fine, just fine." When we got there he threw the sheet over my body, even my face, picked me up bodily, no stretcher, just picked me up and ran into the hospital with me.

They put me in an examining room first; they didn't just throw me into the iron lung right away. I remember being in a small metal crib. I guess it was for babies. I was nine years old so my feet were sticking out the bottom. My mother was there... I guess they had called her when they transferred me.

It was a difficult time. My mother was thirty-two but, at the time, she looked about seventy- two... she just looked so terrible. I told her I couldn't take a deep breath and she said, "Just do what the doctors and nurses tell you and you'll be okay." The next thing I remember was waking up in the iron lung. I don't remember being put into the lung... I believe I was unconscious when they put me in or I would have remembered. And when I woke up I really didn't know I was in an iron lung. I thought I was on a bed with a huge disk around my shoulders. I just couldn't see the rest of it and I didn't know it was there. There was a nurse standing right near the lung and I remember I was surprised that I had slept. I said, "Hey, I slept in this thing." Then I asked, "When are they going to take it away?" I just didn't understand that that's what was making me breathe. I wanted them to take it away but she said, "No, this is helping you... you've got to stay in this for a while."

They put a mirror up and brought my mother to the door and I could see her in the mirror. She asked me how I felt. You know, she tried to... this is terrible... she tried to smile, but she was dying inside. It was a hard conversation.

Anyway, that was it. They took her away and I was all alone. I was in that hospital for nine months, in that iron lung. As time went by I came to understand what I was in... partly. Sometimes the nurses would rest the pillow on top of the lung and I could never figure out what they were putting the pillow on, you know I just didn't know what was there. Eventually I saw another lung go by in the hall and I thought, "Oh, that must be what I'm in." I couldn't figure out how they were going to get me out of it...

My parents brought a TV which I watched from about six in the morning until ten at night, every day. I somehow spontaneously learned how to read. I had difficulty before but, somehow in those months, I just unlocked in some way. I could suddenly read.

Q: What were your thoughts and feelings about all this?

Stern: It's very frightening to a child, to suddenly be out of that little world that you're growing up in. And suddenly the world just ends. That world ended, just wasn't there. Okay, so I'm suddenly in this strange place, strange people, and I have no control of my body or my breathing. Total, I mean it was just like someone had just taken a scissor and cut the film, you know. Attached it so something else, and suddenly a different world.

When I first woke up in the iron lung, I thought it would just be for a day, or an hour... just until I felt better. I didn't know it would be a long term thing. I didn't know that it was breathing for me... I don't remember feeling frightened at that moment, waking up. I just was trying to understand what was happening. I wanted to be at home with my family, that was what I wanted.

Q: What was it like - living in an iron lung?

Stern: I was in the iron lung full time, in that first hospital for acute care, for nine months. I realized after a while that if the lung was opened up, I wouldn't be able to breathe. There were portholes along the side of the lung which were there for nursing care, but they didn't work very well. They were supposed to have a rubber arm hole to maintain an air seal so it really didn't lose air when they carried me through portholes. Sometimes the portholes would fall open and I'd have no air and in those days there were no alarms on the lung.

Later, in the rehab center , there were alarms but here there were none. I remember an incident when there was a porter mopping in the room. He actually mopped under my head, under the head of the lung and I was trying to make any kind of noise I could with my mouth, make faces... I couldn't get his attention in any kind of way; he just mopped and left. And you know, it's just by the grace of somebody, God or somebody, that one of the nurses passed by and saw my face contorted in the mirror... They should have known what the problem was but they didn't. They kept saying, "What's wrong, what's wrong, what's wrong?"

I had no voice because I had no air and I didn't know the things were called portholes. To me they were like little doors, so I was trying to mouth, "The door is open." Eventually they just figured out what was wrong. This happened two or three times -- where I was saved just in the nick of time. That was pretty terrifying...

There was another method where they opened up the lung, for nursing care. They would slide out the cot and put a plastic dome over my head. That was supposed to give me air while the lung was open but it was never very effective. And when the dome was closed they couldn't hear me either. And, if they turned me over too far the collar would close the breathing passage in my neck... it was just terrible.

The dependency and the unpredictability of it... you know, something could happen and suddenly I'm not breathing and I can't get anybody's attention... Later, at the rehab center, the iron lungs had alarms, double alarms actually -- one if the power went out and one if the pressure went down.

I cried lot I guess. I remember the first time I laughed in that iron lung. I was amazed that I was laughing. Everything had been just so terrible. The student nurses used to read to me during the night, all night... Arabian Nights, Black Beauty... they used to read to me and bring me soda to drink... I couldn't sleep because I was so terrified. I realized that these students were maybe eighteen or nineteen years old... kids themselves... but they read to me all night, every night. One of them would stand guard at the door in case the supervisor came by. That was wonderful for me.

Q: How did your siblings react to your illness?

Stern: My sister was six and my brother was three. He did not understand what was going on. He knew only that suddenly the family was upside down and that my parents were often physically and emotionally elsewhere. I think my sister and brother started to fight a lot at that time. They were all given gamma globulin shots when I got sick. That was the standard at that time.

My sister was in first grade at the same school I had been going to. When she went to school, nobody would go near her... they were all afraid that somehow she'd give them polio. She'd come home crying, saying, "They think I have polio, too." That was hard for her, I'm sure.

I saw my brother and sister again when I went to the rehab center, nine months later. My mother came in and said, "Are you ready to see your sister and brother?" And I said yes, and they came in. When they first saw me I was still in the iron lung. That was an odd kind of thing for them. We were shy with each other at first but eventually we got to know each other again.

Q: How were you eventually weaned away from the iron lung?

Stern: The iron lung very simply and mechanically just causes inhalation and exhalation, it's just negative pressure. There's no oxygen involved.

They started weaning me from the lung a few hours at a time... putting clothes on me. My mother had bought me a cowboy outfit, which I always wanted, and two six-guns. I used to wear them in the iron lung. I'd have the cowboy hat put over my forehead and my nose.

I started going home on Sundays after a while, when I was able to stay out during the day. Staying out all night was the big hurdle.

Eventually, I had a few neck muscles kind of pull a little bit of breath in... they taught us something called 'frog breathing. It's technically called 'glossopharyngal breathing' and it's very much what a frog does when it breathes. If you watch a frog, you see this flesh under the jaw that opens and closes... and that's what it is. It's just a way of mechanically gulping the air in. Some of the patients knew it at the rehab center and they tried to teach it to me. I kind of learnt it spontaneously too. Just by watching it and needing it, you pick it up after a while.

So with that and my little neck muscles, I had a few hours out of the lung. They also would put on a chest piece that covers the torso. That would attach by a hose to another machine with negative pressure. Essentially, it did what the iron lung does... when it reduces the pressure around the chest cavity, your lungs inflate with air.

But it was painful for me, so sleeping with that all night didn't work. I didn't make it through the night. And because I was so thin, there wasn't a good seal. There was a wind tunnel under my back all the time. No matter how many blankets they put on me, I couldn't get warm and the thing hurt. And in the middle of the night, I'd invariably get thrown back in the lung.

The lung became like a nice cocoon for me, because I could breathe in it and nothing hurt and I could get warm. I could sleep peacefully. So it took time.

Eventually this mouthpiece I'm using was developed. It's called IPPB - 'intermittent positive pressure breathing.' We just call it positive pressure. This helped me sleep better all night but it wasn't an ideal solution. It was okay... it did break that last hurdle... but when you sleep, your jaw and mouth tend to slacken and you don't really get the air. You need to hold your lips around it to make a seal. So I wasn't really getting properly ventilated and I started sleeping all the time. My C02 count went way, way up and they didn't let me sleep with the mouthpiece any more.

I did eventually get used to the chest piece, by sticking pads into it. Years later they developed a lip guard for the mouthpiece with Velcro straps. There's a seal in the mouth, around the lips and two straps over the head. That's what I use now. It just keeps the air going in.

Q: When did you first hear of the polio vaccine that was being developed?

Stern: When I was still in the acute hospital, in the lung, I remember seeing on the news that the vaccine was being tried in spot areas around the country. Most of the news stories reported cases where the children actually came down with polio from the vaccine. There was a lot of controversy then. Nobody really trusted the vaccine and so they did emphasize, at least in my memory, those cases where the kids got polio from the vaccine.

I don't remember thinking or feeling much about it either way. My mother wept about it, she actually wept. She said to me, "Couldn't you have waited for seven months?" but there was no answer... I couldn't answer.

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