My Mother’s Story of Her Days in the Polio Pavilion
The resurgence of polio had made me ask my mother Linda, now 73, about the time when I was hospitalized a few days after my first birthday. I’ve heard her story a few times along with additional commentary from my late father. I wanted to hear it again.
I was already walking by my eight month and had the knack of kicking and picking up stuff around with my feet and legs. My father liked to joke that I’ll probably end up as a football player. On my 10th month, while visiting her brother for the holidays, Mama said I ended up toppling my uncle’s Christmas tree to everyone’s amusement because I had somehow gotten my feet tangled in the ornaments and kicked the tree down. My other uncle would hold me by my legs and make me stand on his shoulders.
For three days after my first birthday, I was crying continuously. This alarmed Mama and Papa who brought me to Children’s Medical Hospital in Quezon City. The doctors suspected that I probably had polio. My parents were aghast. I’ve completed the first two rounds of anti-polio shots but I've come down with a fever on the day I was scheduled for the third and final shot. They had it rescheduled but I had a fever again so I never got the last dose until I came down with polio.
The doctors recommended that I be taken immediately to San Lazaro Hospital. This filled my mother with dread. San Lazaro was the last stop for those with infectious and communicable diseases. On February 26, 1977, I was admitted to San Lazaro. I tested positive for the poliovirus.
The other babies were a lot like me. They were crying a lot but their bodies weren’t moving. Their arms and legs were all still. They didn’t even have the strength to shake a rattle.
Instead of a room, I was confined to an isolated pavilion for the polio cases. San Lazaro had other separate pavilions for babies and children with measles and meningitis. Mama was six months pregnant, carrying my younger brother. Papa could only take a few days off from work, leaving Mama to stay with me at the polio pavilion where around a dozen children were also confined. The pavilion was almost at full capacity during the time I was there. The other babies were a lot like me. They were crying a lot but their bodies weren’t moving. Their arms and legs were all still. They didn’t even have the strength to shake a rattle.
A few days into my confinement and I had gotten worse. My arms and legs weren’t moving at all and I was running a high fever. Mama said that when she picked me up, it felt like carrying a ragdoll because my head, hands, and feet just flopped at my sides. Apart from the paralysis of my extremities, the doctors were also monitoring if I had difficulty in breathing. In some cases of polio, the diaphragm can also suffer from paralysis, making it impossible for the patient to survive without an external ventilator.
In the pavilion, Mama recalled seeing some children encased in an iron lung which was a full body respirator. The iron lung was a dreadful mechanical metal tube that had portholes on the side. I’ve seen the iron lung in documentaries about polio and it looked like a sarcophagus if it were produced by the Soviet space program during the ‘60s. I was breathing on my own so I was spared from the iron lung.
There was definitely a polio epidemic at that time but doctors were wondering where I got infected. We were living in a relatively new apartment in Makati that was three floors up. A possible disease vector at the time was a dirty water source. We were nowhere near one.
I was treated for the symptoms of polio such as the fever but not polio itself because there was no cure. There is still no cure. Vaccines are the only way to prevent polio. The doctors were already preparing my parents for the worst. There was a possibility that I would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. They only had one option for me. The doctors recommended that I undergo therapy around my second week of confinement when my fever had subsided. Because of the therapy sessions, I regained partial movement on the left side of my body.
There is still no cure. Vaccines are the only way to prevent polio.
On March 23, after almost a month in the hospital, I was discharged. The doctors recommended continuous therapy and my father took it upon himself to learn physical therapy for me. A few months after my confinement, I was visited by an ermitanyo, a sloven of an old man who had a long beard and carried a bag of medicinal herbs and bottles of oil. Soaking in the oil was a dark bark. He looked like a shaman and a homeless man. He was possibly both. He told my parents he heard of my case from someone and he wanted to help. My parents humored him and let him apply an herbal concoction which he turned into a poultice. I looked like I was being marinated. Papa, who was usually a staunch skeptic, drew the line at anything that I needed to take orally.
Papa continued the therapy session for a few years until was able to walk again when I was five years old. It was during a graduation ceremony for my kindergarten class that I once again stood up and slowly walked to the podium. Up until then, my father had to carry me around and I just usually crawled and dragged my right leg.
Now as a 43-year-old walking and navigating through daily life with a crutch, I ask Mama what could’ve happened to the other children in the polio pavilion. She doesn’t have an answer.