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ROTARY CLUB NEWS: ‘Aunt Sally’ had it

Eradicating worldwide polio is personal for Lake Placid Rotarian

May 25, 2017
By MARTHA SPEAR - Lake Placid Rotary Club , Lake Placid News

For the seventh week in a row, no new polio reported cases in the past week anywhere in the world!

1952 was an epidemic year for polio, a crippling and potentially fatal virus that can cause paralysis in a matter of hours of the person being infected. But on March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced that he had found a vaccine for poliovirus.

My lifelong friend Sally was age 18 that day, in an isolation ward in a hospital in Manhattan, just diagnosed with polio. She heard Dr. Salk's announcement on the radio.

Sally was born in 1935, at the height of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. FDR was another polio sufferer. My Sally is a funny, loving, smart, cantankerous, thoughtful and creative person I treasure in my life. She is my "other mother."

By the time I met her, when I was 4 in 1969, she walked with a cane and always seemed slightly uncomfortable in her right leg and ankle, but I never asked about it. She was just my mother's best friend, and to me she was always Miss Sally or Aunt Sally, who had polio when she was a girl.

The summer of 1953 Sally was going back to college and was visiting her mom upstate at their family farm. At summer's end, she needed to catch the bus back to New York City where her dad still minded the family store, and she was a student at Brooklyn College. A neighboring farmer gave her a ride to the bus stop, only a mile from her family's place. When she arrived in Brooklyn late that day and got off the bus, her legs felt weak and strange, a feeling she'd never felt before. There was no pain, just a lack of control of her legs.

The doctor visited their home and gave her a spinal tap to test for polio. (Sally said there was no pain. "He was very good.") Later she received the dismaying diagnosis. Polio was a big deal in 1953. Sally was immediately removed to an isolation ward in Manhattan, later released to a polio ward, and several months later, sent back home.

Her knee tendons had stiffened up so that she couldn't straighten her right leg. Her leg was not numb, but she could not move it. Paralysis. The nerve connections were destroyed. She got used to using a cane and went back to college and commenced on a normal life. She finished college with a biochemistry major, worked, went to church, cared for her parents, made art and cooked and read and had parties, settled in rural Maryland and made friends with my parents.

Many years later, I was in high school, ready for my own college adventure, when Sally was invited to join some friends for a tour of Baltimore Harbor. It was hard for her to descend the steps to the boat, so polio came up. As they talked, Sally was struck by the boat driver's unusual last name, Mr. X.

"My goodness," Sally recalled saying. "The farmer who gave me a ride to the bus to Brooklyn in 1953, when I got off and my legs didn't work, his name was Mr. Warren X."

There was dead silence on the boat for many long moments as they pulled into the dock. Then the boat driver said, "Warren X was my brother and he had polio." Astonished, Sally blurted out, "I hope he didn't catch it from me."

Sally thought frantically back to that late summer afternoon when she had ridden with farmer X. She said she knows she did not cough or sneeze, they did not shake hands, and it was only a mile ride. Just by breathing, she fears she gave this kind man polio.

About three years ago, her post-polio syndrome got really bad and Sally stopped being able to walk altogether. She now lives in the same house, in a wheelchair, with friends to care for her. We write and chat regularly.

Sally was very willing to share her story with me, and was unaware that Rotary focused on polio eradication. In fact, right now the Gates Foundation will match donations to Rotary's polio initiative 2:1. Rotary and partners have reduced polio by 99 percent worldwide since 1979, but it is still common in countries such as Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. As long as polio exists, it is a risk for all of us.

I had never asked Sally about her experience before I prepared this story, just accepted the limp and the cane and wheelchair as who Sally was, a treasured stalwart in my life. Sally insists we understand that she was one of the lucky ones. But not every polio survivor gets post-polio syndrome, so she wasn't that lucky.

Most virus research these days focuses on other ailments, not polio. It is easy to forget that this disease, not long ago so common in the U.S., still rages in some countries, and its survivors' lives are forever changed. I am proud to be a member of Rotary and help indirectly with the worldwide fight against polio.

You can help, too, by contributing at

The Lake Placid Rotary Club meets every Thursday morning from 7:20 to 8:30 a.m. at the Courtyard by Marriott. All are welcome.

For more information, visit online at or by email at



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