Warm Springs

Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven

by Susan Richards Shreve

Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve X
Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2008, 240 pages

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BookBrowse Review

A rich and moving memoir of childhood illness and its aftermath by a member of the last generation of Americans to have experienced childhood polio

Shreve, who contracted polio when she was a year-old, spent the first 11 years of her life trying to fit into "normal" life, walking with a brace and failing deportment classes at the local elementary school. So she was thrilled to arrive at a place where crippled children were considered ordinary - only to find herself insufficiently debilitated to be considered normal there either!

For many decades after Shreve's father collected her from Warm Springs, having been ask to remove his 13-year-old daughter with immediate effect as she was a "danger" to the other children, Shreve never thought to look back on her time at the center. This changed a few years ago when she and her husband struck up a conversation with two scientists who were examining the relationship between the AIDS and polio viruses. It struck Shreve that both diseases carried a moral stain - in the case of AIDS the shame is sexual, with polio it was social, based on the false belief that the virus struck only the filthy houses of the urban poor.

This conversation triggered her to begin a circuitous route back to the years she had spent at Warm Springs and the downhill wheelchair race that she had instigated between her and her first love, Joey Buckley, that had caused her to be removed "pronto" from the establishment.

She read about the history of polio and FDR's contribution to Warm Springs and the irradiation of polio. She read about the "silent generation" of the 1950s and thought about the shame of illness and the character-defining frustration of a child locked in a paralyzed body who feels responsible for changing the family's daily life. As she thought all this she remembered the fateful race with Joey and began to think, "What it had meant to live in a village of cripples, to travel the distance between childhood and adulthood for that short time by myself discovering the lure of religion and romantic movies and the danger of sexuality lurking in the embryo of adolescence".

The result is Warm Springs. Shreve spins a delicate web of memoir in which polio takes a back seat to a powerful coming of age story in which a 13-year-old girl trapped in a body inadequate for her ambitious energies hits adolescent rebellion at full speed, experiences her first crush, undergoes surgeries and rehabilitation and tries terribly hard to become the "good girl" people want her to be. It is a riveting, raw, miscellany of memories from a bygone era that seems much longer ago than it is - a snapshot of a time and place, and the challenge of living with pain, guilt and loneliness.

This review was originally published in July 2007, and has been updated for the June 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

Beyond the Book

Poliomyelitis, more commonly known as Polio, is a viral disease that has plagued humans since ancient times. It is transmitted primarily through direct fecal-oral contact. However, it can also be transmitted by indirect contact with infectious saliva or feces or by contaminated sewage or water.

In over 90% of cases there are no symptoms but in those who show symptoms the illness takes three forms: Abortive polio in which people experience mild flu-like symptoms; a more serious form called nonparalytic polio in which a person experiences sensitivity to light and neck stiffness; and then there is the severe, debilitating form known as paralytic polio in which the virus leaves the intestinal tract and enters the bloodstream, attacking the nerves and causing muscle paralysis.

Although the acute illness usually lasts less than 2 weeks, damage to the nerves can last a lifetime. Even those who apparently recover may go on to develop post-polio syndrome (PPS) as many as 30 to 40 years after contracting polio.

The most extensive known outbreak of the disease occurred during the 1950s. In 1952, at the height of the outbreak, there were 60,000 cases in the USA alone resulting in 3,000 deaths. Thanks to the vaccination created by Jonas Salk in 1955, polio was eliminated from the USA in 1979, and was thought to have been eliminated from the Western hemisphere in 1991, but in 2000 there was an outbreak of paralytic polio in the Dominican Republican and Haiti.

The World Health Organization (WHO) with the support of organizations such as Rotary, UNICEF and the Gates Foundation are working towards eradicating polio worldwide. In 1988, 355,000 cases of polio were reported in 125 countries; by the end of 2004 there were just 1,255 cases.


Should you still vaccinate & is vaccination safe?
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), yes and yes!

There are two types of vaccination for polio - OPV and IPV. OPV is the vaccination that most of us received in the form of oral drops (served, at least in the UK, on sugar lumps!). OPV is better than IPV at keeping the disease from spreading to other people, but in very rare cases (1:2.4 million) it can cause polio. IPV, on the other hand, cannot cause polio. Because the risk of getting polio in the US is now so low, the IPV vaccine, given by injection, has replaced OPV as the usual vaccination of choice (IPV is also administered in the UK and probably elsewhere).

There is no cure for polio, so even though the risk of contracting polio in most countries is very low, vaccination is still strongly recommended as the virus is still active in at least six countries (Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Niger, Nigeria, and Pakistan). Until the disease is entirely eradicated, all it would take is for one infected person to import the virus into a country where not enough people are immune and a polio outbreak could occur.


Related Links:
The goal of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative is to ensure that no child will ever again know the crippling effects of polio. It is the largest public health initiative the world has ever known.

This review was originally published in July 2007, and has been updated for the June 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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