Farmer With Childhood Polio Remembers Earlier Outbreak: ‘I Was Terrified of a Shot'

Forty years passed before Dale Wheelock could tolerate the touch of a syringe on his skin.

Old-fashioned needles with dull points haunted Dale Wheelock for decades.

When he was 5 years old in 1948 to 1949, Wheelock came down with polio, a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that invades the nervous system.

He likely had a fever, aching joints and some paralysis of the legs, all telltale signs of the scourge that preyed on children.

While in a Catholic hospital, Wheelock received regular penicillin shots.

Forty years passed before he could tolerate the touch of a syringe on his skin.

“I was terrified of a shot,” he told The Janesville Gazette.

For Wheelock and others who lived through the polio epidemic, the current fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus stir memories of another frightening disease

Today, Wheelock farms in the Walworth County town of Darien.

As a child, he lived with his family in Palatine, Illinois.

He clearly recalls the hospital nuns, who brought glass syringes filled with penicillin on trays three times a day. Wheelock stayed in a ward with other children, who all cried at the same time when the penicillin arrived.

Back then, they did not have disposable needles.

“They had to sterilize them after each use,” Wheelock said. “Since they were reused, they weren’t always the sharpest.”

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Vaccine stops disease

Wheelock’s illness came years before the first vaccine became widely available in 1955.

“They didn’t know if the penicillin would help,” Wheelock said. “They didn’t know what to do for us.”

His therapy was straightforward.

Hospital nuns hung balloons at the end of his bed and told him to kick them.

“They thought it would keep my legs going,” Wheelock said.

Wheelock does not remember how his parents reacted when they learned he had polio. He guesses they were terrified, like so many parents, about what would happen to their child.

“Everyone was nervous about polio,” he said.

Wheelock especially recalls being frightened when he saw children in iron-lung machines.

With only their heads sticking out, they rested on beds inside the massive mechanical respirators.

Iron lungs enabled patients to breathe when the virus paralyzed muscles in their chests.

“They would lay flat and had a mirror over them so they could see when people came up and talked to them,” Wheelock said. “The iron lungs freaked me out. I never wanted to be in one of them.”

Unlike some children, the disease did not affect the use of his legs. Instead, it left him with partial use of his left arm.

He started first grade after having polio.

“I came in sometime after school began,” Wheelock remembers. “The kids avoided me until the teacher convinced them I wasn’t contagious.”

One neighbor boy wouldn’t let Wheelock off the bus at his stop.

“The bus driver helped me get past the kid,” he said. “I told my dad when I got home, and we went right to the neighbor’s house. My dad explained to the other father what would happen if this continued.”

As they left, the elder Wheelock turned and told the neighbor his son is handicapped.

“That was the first time I heard the word,” Wheelock said. “I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now.”

He knew other children with paralysis much worse than his.

“Some had an awful time walking,” Wheelock said.

So many suffered

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, polio paralyzed about 35,000 people in the United States each year.

The worst polio year on record was 1952, when more than 57,000 cases were reported, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Newspaper reports from the period show that one of Rock County’s worst polio epidemics in 1950 left at least five people dead among 38 cases.

At the time and during other outbreaks, Janesville officials closed movie theaters, swimming pools and beaches in an attempt to thwart the disease. Worried parents kept their children inside during the summer, even when they begged to go out.

Sometimes, children disappeared from school. Later, they reappeared using crutches or in wheelchairs. Others did not survive one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century.

Eventually, science brought new hope.

In 1954, Rock County children were among 1.8 million in the United States to take part in polio-vaccine trials.

Then, in spring 1955, Jonas Salk and his team of researchers announced they had developed a vaccine to conquer the disease.

The news brought rejoicing 65 years ago this month.

No longer would the specter of paralysis or death haunt fearful families.

With the United States being polio free for many years, people who were unaffected by the disease have largely forgotten.

But for people such as Wheelock, polio will never slip from memory.

He often wonders what he would be today if he had not gotten polio and a weak arm.

“It made me an overachiever to prove a point,” he said. “I had to prove that I could be as good as everyone else.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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