Independence polio survivor compares 1950s epidemic to COVID-19 pandemic

Joe O'Brien Polio Survivor
Posted at 10:03 PM, Aug 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-12 10:13:02-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — By the time Dr. Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was deemed safe and effective in 1955, it was three years too late for Joe O'Brien.

"I was fitted for my first braces, leg braces, and I remember thinking, 'You're not ever going to walk again,'" O’Brien, a polio survivor, said.

In 1952, O'Brien was 8 years old and living in Independence as polio ravaged the country.

"My mother was terrified by it," O'Brien said. "We weren't allowed to go swimming. We didn’t do anything, it was risky or anything."

That July, O’Brien became one of nearly 60,000 children who contracted the virus.

"One morning, I woke up, got up and my light right leg went out from under me," O'Brien said.

After getting diagnosed, he spent almost two weeks in an isolation unit where some children used an iron lung to help them breathe.

"My parents had to look in the window, from the outside, kind of like with the COVID thing where the people couldn’t go in," O'Brien said, "and so I had to look up like that at the window."

When COVID-19 hit, the now-77-year-old retired schoolteacher hunkered down because he only has 18% of his lung capacity due to polio.

That also was one of the reasons he was looking forward to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but said he's is aware of hesitancy toward the vaccines.

"It seems like we’re in a situation right now where practically everything is made suspect," O'Brien said.

The difference between now and 1955, according to O'Brien and historians, is that back then Americans had a deep respect for science.

"That's why I think it's important that they listen to the science, and not to people who have other motives," O'Brien said. "I think that's unfortunate that that's happened. But I would certainly encourage people get the necessary medication or vaccination."