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Polio survivors reflect on pandemic as they receive COVID-19 vaccine

HOUSTON – Memorial Hermann hospital has a special connection to polio survivors and wanted to ensure they were high on its list of patients to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The hospital first began treating polio survivors in the 1950′s and 1960′s, according to Dr. Gerard Francisco, chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann/ UTHealth.

“A lot of people, unfortunately, did not get the polio vaccination in the 1950′s when it was first discovered and subsequently introduced,” Francisco said. “Either because they got the polio before the vaccine was developed or when the vaccine was developed, they did not have access to it.”

The TIRR post-polio clinic now treats polio survivors, like Rhonda Young of Kingwood. The 69-year-old contracted polio in 1953.

“I really don’t have much memory of that because my parents always said I was like 18 to 22 months,” said the polio survivor.

What Young does remember is having minimal contact with her parents while in the polio ward.

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Historical photos of polio patients being treated in the 1950s at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston.

“I wanted to be picked up,” she said. “I’d be crying but then when they picked me up it hurt. They said I had a sore throat.”

The virus was highly contagious in the 1950s. A vaccine wasn’t available to children until 1955.

“If I had had the availability of the vaccine, I’m sure I would not have had polio,” she said.

Young said she recalled having to undergo surgeries in the first and second grade, growth stimulation to make her legs even and even therapy to walk again. Though Young survived polio she still lives with lasting effects, such as fatigue and weakening muscles. She was diagnosed with Post-Polio Syndrome in 2008 at TIRR Memorial Hermann.

Now, during the pandemic, Dr. Francisco said Memorial Hermann is trying to avoid history repeating itself.

“Many of these people missed the opportunity to get the vaccine more than 50 years ago and we do not want them to miss the opportunity to get the vaccine against Coronavirus,” he said.

Dr. Francisco said polio survivors were among some of the hospital’s first patients vaccinated against COVID-19.

So far 100 post-polio patients have been vaccinated, including Young.

“I feel great. I feel great,” Young said about receiving her vaccine. “Some side effects afterward, especially with the second one. I’d rather have that than have the COVID.”

Polio cases have been reduced by 99% since the vaccine decades ago, according to the World Health Organization. Dr. Francisco said his hope is that the current vaccines can do the same for COVID-19.