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Vaccine Exemption Debate Sparks Memories For Mainers Who Survived Polio

Patty Wight
Maine Public
In this photo of a photo, Crocker is with her mother at the rehab hospital, using a cane

In less than two weeks, Mainers will cast their votes on a referendum that seeks to repeal a new law that removes religious and philosophical exemptions for vaccines.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
In 1952, Crocker was diagnosed with polio.

Rates of non-medical exemptions continue to rise in Maine, and they are currently more than double the national average. But whether successful or not, the repeal effort is stoking the memories of polio survivors who lived through a time when immunizations weren’t available for certain diseases.

Sitting at her dining room table in West Gardiner, 72-year old Ann Crocker sifts through a pile of photos from her childhood.

"This was a picture of me showing my family on that Sunday, 'Here look! I can take my first step.'" Crocker was taking that step after being seriously ill. "I had polio when I had just turned five. Three years before the Salk vaccine came out."

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Crocker taking her first steps at rehab hospital in Bath

It was September of 1952, and Crocker remembers that she wasn't feeling well. She was sitting on a couch in her family's home in Livermore Falls drinking a cup of juice. At the time, polio paralyzed more than 16,000 people per year in the United States and caused more than 1,800 deaths. Crocker's mother worried about the virus, and Crocker tried to reassure her.

"I moved around. 'See, I'm okay mom. I'm a little tired.' And she says, 'Why don't you lie down on the couch.' And the next time I went to reach for the cup, I could not move my arms.”

Her mother and grandfather rushed her to the hospital where she was placed in isolation. As she lay in bed, Crocker was able to see her grandfather in the hallway outside.

"I remember moaning and wanting my grandfather, because we were close. He lived with us. And he, I could hear the talking and he says, 'I can't come in.'"

Crocker says she was paralyzed up to her chin, and doctors and nurses wrapped her in warm, wet blankets to loosen her muscles. After three weeks, she was moved to a rehabilitation hospital in Bath where she would spend nearly one year trying to regain movement.

"We were only able to see our family for two hours on Sundays. That's it."

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Crocker with her brother

Each week, Crocker concentrated on showing her family a new skill. First, it was moving her fingers. Giving a full smile. Then, rolling over, sitting up. And finally, taking a step. She says it was grueling, painful work. Eventually she was able to walk again. But that didn't mean she was cured.

"You don't just have it and get over it. It's still with you. And it, it can cause problems later on."

Crocker rolls up her jeans to reveal two knee braces. In her mid-thirties, she says she started to experience what's called post-polio syndrome, and her muscles began to weaken. Over the decades she's added braces for her leg, knees, hands and neck. Crocker says it's painful to walk even the few steps it takes to get from her kitchen to her living room. Her experience is not unique.

"The brace goes all the way down to my toes, all the way up to the top of my leg. I have to wear that every day because without it I can't walk," says 66-year old Reginald Arsenault of Mexico, Maine.

Arsenault says he got polio when he was two or three, around the time the vaccine first became available. Arsenault was vaccinated, but doctors suspect he already had the virus.

"I was actually on the tail end of the epidemic."

Arsenault says he couldn't move anything below his neck. He was hospitalized for four months, and he says his recovery extended throughout his childhood. He had to relearn to walk several times.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
Arsenault says he got polio when he was two or three, around the time the vaccine first became available.

"I've had six surgeries altogether, four on my right leg, which was originally affected by polio. My left leg, they put steel staples in my knee to stop the growth so the right leg would catch up.”

Arsenault also had surgery on his left arm, which is shorter than his right. Like Ann Crocker, he experienced post-polio syndrome in his thirties. He could no longer work. Over the years, he says he has had to get used to letting things go.

"It's quite an adjustment. The last probably 10 years, it's gotten worse where, you know, a lot of things I used to be able to do, like mow the lawn, snow blower, shovel. I can just barely do any more."

Diana Abbott of Moody has also had to adjust to a different life after she contracted polio as a 15-year-old in Kennebunkport in 1955.

"I had not been vaccinated, and it came out two weeks later, Dr. Salk's vaccine."

Abbott says she had been feeling ill, and when she woke up one morning, she fell to the floor, unable to walk. It was late November, she says, and she wouldn't return home again till the following summer, to a different life from before. She could never walk again without using crutches and leg braces.

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
"It changed it completely" Abbot says

"It changed it completely, because you're going from a person who was very active, walking. I was a cheerleader at the time. And then all of a sudden everything is taken away from you. Everything."

In school, Abbott says she relied on boys to carry her up and down stairs. She battled doubts in college about whether she could complete a teaching degree, but she graduated and taught elementary school for 25 years. Abbott says she retired early when she began to develop post-polio syndrome. By her 60s, she had to use a wheelchair. She's now 80, and says she's relegated to her house most of the time.

"Every day something goes missing out of your life." Abbott misses being able to just get up and walk to the bathroom, or step into the shower. She lives less than a mile from the beach, but even that can feel far.

Hyde Memorial Rehabilitation Hospital in Bath, where Crocker and Abbott were each treated

"I can remember the feeling of standing in the water. And when the water comes in, and it goes out, the different feeling that you have on your feet. Oh, I would love to be able to just go down there and stand and have that feeling on my feet."

Abbott, Arsenault and Crocker are all members of the Post Polio Support Group of Maine. Each of them says they are worried about the upcoming referendum that could repeal Maine's new law, which aims to boost immunization rates by eliminating non-medical exemptions.

Arsenault says he shows skeptical parents his leg brace. "I'll go into the doctor's office or any place, and I'll hear young mothers say 'well, no, I'm not going to have my child protected against this.' And I'll roll up the pant leg and say ‘listen, if you don't want your child to have to wear one of these seven days a week, 14-hours a day, then have at it.’"

Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public
Maine Public
What's comforting, says Crocker, is that vaccination has meant no members with new cases of polio are joining the group.

Supporters of the repeal effort say there haven't been enough outbreaks or a large enough drop in vaccination rates to do away with non-medical exemptions. But Diana Abbott disagrees.

"I want people to look at me and say, 'No, we need to get a vaccine.' Because I don't want this to happen to anybody. I really don't. It's just too traumatic."

At its peak, the Post Polio Support Group had 900 members. That number has dropped almost in half as people have aged and passed away. But what's comforting, says Ann Crocker, is that vaccination has meant no members with new cases of polio are joining the group.

Originally published 4:18 p.m. Feb. 20, 2020