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Polio: An American Story
Polio: An American Story
David M. Oshinsky
Oxford University Press, USA, 2005
342 pp., 35.00

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Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture
Polio and Its Aftermath: The Paralysis of Culture
Marc Shell
Harvard University Press, 2005
336 pp., 37.0

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Post-Polio Syndrome: A Guide for Polio Survivors and Their Families
Post-Polio Syndrome: A Guide for Polio Survivors and Their Families
Julie K. Silver
Yale University Press, 2001
304 pp., 40.00

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Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors
Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors
Daniel J. Wilson
University of Chicago Press, 2005
312 pp., 31.0

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Edward E. Ericson, Jr.


Oh No, Polio

A disease that left its mark.

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Unsurprisingly, wrath leads to faulty generalizations. "A child polio was the cause of family shame." People are in denial that "all forms of polio damaged neurons, permanently." There is "a consistent tendency to overlook" post-polio syndrome and "often to declare that it doesn't even exist" (this, at the very time when books and internet sites devoted to PPS are flourishing). Charitable polio organizations used a popular song's inspiring lines, "Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, / And you'll never walk alone"—about which Shell comments, "To us polio-children, the words of this love song meant both that we would never be able to walk without braces and that we would always be dependent on someone to lean on." Who is this "us," Kemo Sabe?

Wrath, even when inspired by self-pity, is a deadly sin. It is Shell's book's fatal flaw.

Julie Silver, who studied polio because her mother had it, has written a helpful "how-to" book on post-polio syndrome. PPS is about as difficult to diagnose as polio itself. Its symptoms are new weakness, unaccustomed fatigue, muscular pain, new swallowing problems, new respiratory problems, cold intolerance, new muscle atrophy. But who doesn't have such symptoms as aging proceeds? The best one can do in diagnosing PPS is to eliminate all other causes of these symptoms—an impossibility. It is difficult, even, to estimate the percentage of polio survivors who become afflicted by PPS. Silver estimates somewhere between 25 and 60 percent. Yet, since the symptoms range from mild to severe, everything remains in question.

Silver's book functions best as a reference guide. Her advice is level-headed, though limited, and her addiction to lists makes for dreary reading. Are you fighting fatigue, dear oldster? Read the list of twenty possible causes, and if you can eliminate the other 19, PPS is your culprit. If you tire quickly, read the ten steps to energy conservation and pacing. To relax without sleeping, try one or more of eleven ways. To avoid falling, keep in mind 16 intrinsic risk factors and 18 extrinsic ones. If you never had polio, follow her advice anyway.

Polio contributes to back trouble. Yes, but … Can it contribute to meralgia paresthetica? to atrial fibrillation? to … ? But society cannot afford research just to satisfy the curiosity of a dying breed.

On the biggest question, Silver can offer no help. What is polio's impact on longevity? Surely, compensatory overload will take a toll on nerves and muscles. PPS does indeed seem, now that it has been identified, to be a "cruel trick" for those afflicted. Yet, hearteningly, Silver closes with the reminder (pace Shell), "Given the magnitude of their afflictions, most polio survivors cope remarkably well."

Even those who take a certain perverse pleasure in being identified with the 20th century's hallmark disease realize that they now belong to a museum tableau. If they know what frail vessels carried society to the land of scientific promise, most appreciate the ride. They should know, as well, that their scourge bestows no unique advantages for moral reflection. The guises of suffering differ from one to another; the age-old mystery of it remains universal. Some human beings grow through suffering; others shrivel. An incipient utopianism characterizes those who complain perpetually about their polio. They seem to want a world free of sickness and war, of tsunamis and tornadoes, of sin and death. There may be such a world; some say there is. But it is not this one.

Edward E. Ericson, Jr., professor of English, emeritus, at Calvin College, is currently collaborating on two books about Solzhenitsyn, forthcoming from ISI.

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