Today’s guest blogger is Karen Chase, whose book, Polio Boulevard, is a short, sweet, and powerful memoir about surviving polio. It’s super timely given the anniversary of the Salk vaccine, all the current Roosevelt coverage, and (unfortunately) with polio back in the news as a threat again.
Q&A with Karen Chase
Sixty years after your childhood polio diagnosis and after a long, successful career as an author of poems, stories and essays, why did you finally decide to write your memoir, POLIO BOULEVARD?
While my childhood was marred by the disease and its recovery, I did not consciously think of myself as a polio survivor. For many decades, I never looked back. My polio became a distant memory. I suppose it has taken me this long to write about it because, for some people, personal stories take a long time to tell. Although I didn’t experience my illness as traumatic, no doubt it was. Maybe I repressed the story. For some reason, it never popped up as something to talk or write about. Art being what it is – art emerges from the soul – it suddenly loomed large as a subject to explore in my writing. I don’t question this process. I just tag along, following the muse.
What was your childhood like prior to your polio diagnosis?
I was a sprouting ten-year-old girl living in an affluent suburb of New York City, and all was well. I was merrily jumping rope and playing hopscotch with my friends. I’d hop on my bike and help my older brother deliver newspapers up and down the streets of my town. I’d swim in Long Island Sound, a short bike ride from our house. And I had a new baby sister! I was in fifth grade. One day while walking home from school for lunch, kicking a stone down the road, my legs began to hurt. After a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and glass of cold milk, I said, “Mom, I can’t go back to school today.” My neck got stiff, my fever rose alarmingly, and what started as small pains turned into large ones. The doctor came and soon I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, diagnosed with polio.
What was the recovery process like?
I spent 6 months in Sunshine Cottage, the polio ward at Grasslands Hospital in Westchester County, NY. During that time, I was in a wheelchair and had a back brace. Later, I was put in a full-length body cast, underwent a spinal fusion at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. I left school in fifth grade upon my diagnosis and did not return until I was a high school freshman.
How did your rich imagination and creativity help you through your ordeal?
As a young girl, my mother took me on the train into New York City where I took painting lessons in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum. Right now, I can smell those oversized jars of red and blue tempera. I loved to paint. Polio struck when I was ten years old and I was shocked to be immobilized—first by the deadening effect of polio and later by an enormous body cast. As my body was losing motion, my mind was painting. I remember lying inert in my hospital bed, focused on the dots of the hospital ceiling tiles. I pretended they were all kinds of animals on the move—bears, camels, foxes on parade. With the help of my abundant imagination, I joked around on the hospital ward, making life not only bearable but fun. Looking monster-like in my full-length body cast, I wrote a letter to the Barbizon School of Modeling, asking whether I could become a model. My illness made for a rich inner life and immobility shaped and widened my vision. After polio, I valued my mind’s flexibility like gold.
How did having polio as a child affect your sensory experiences and body image?
The way a blind person compensates for for lack of vision by exceptional hearing, I compensated for my immobility by always looking, looking, looking and always listening. Before I got sick, I was particularly tuned in to what I saw and heard. Since then, this tendency has mushroomed. To this day, I react strongly to even the slightest sound, which can sometimes be difficult. When I hear friends talk about aging, how this or that attribute has changed, I realize how my polio has affected my body image. My body has been imperfect for as long as I can remember. Seeing my body age is part of this ongoing imperfection so it is not jarring. I don’t mean to sound like I don’t care what I look like – I’m actually quite vain.
What was your reaction to the news that Jonas Salk had invented the polio vaccine?
In the spring of 1954, when I was a patient in the polio ward at Grasslands Hospital in Westchester County, I was happily playing Monopoly with my friends. The radio was on. A voice announced that a doctor named Jonas Salk had invented a vaccine to prevent polio. Some of us turned silent, some of us laughed, and one patient blurted out, “Too late for us!” Here we were, a group of ill children on stretchers and in wheelchairs living through an historical moment when polio’s peril was replaced by joy and relief.
What has been your personal perspective over the years on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a polio patient who became president of the United States?
For me and so many others who had polio, FDR is a figure alive in our imaginations. How helpful to know how he embraced life after his illness, how courageous he was, how he moved ahead in the world. Not only that, but the way he tirelessly worked and fought for those less fortunate is inspiring, especially in today’s climate. Additionally, my parents were lefty liberals and adored Roosevelt. There were plenty of books around our house about him, making him a familiar character. I have always felt a kinship with him, almost like we are part of the same family, almost like he is my grandfather. In fact, writing POLIO BOULEVARD, a book in which FDR is an important character, has led to my current writing project.
What has your reaction been to hearing that polio is back in the news as a global threat again?
That children in Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq wake up in their beds with pain and fever as polio invades their bodies and does its deadly work is a devastating thought. How can this be? Because of the preventative power of the Salk Vaccine, it is avoidable. The World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the International Rotary Club have dedicated themselves to making the earth polio-free. Through their efforts and their dollars, combined with many countries’ internal efforts, polio has been eradicated in most of the world. Recently, while spending time in New Delhi, I saw billboards that publicized polio as an existing threat. But I also learned that the Indian government was sending out massive numbers of people to families and religious leaders in order to foster understanding about immunizations. Aid workers were being sent to the most remote villages in the country to dispense the vaccine. Even Bollywood stars and celebrity cricket players joined in. Huge efforts from within the country, combined with international dedication, have made India polio-free as of 2013, making India a prime example of how polio can be stricken from this earth.
What are your views on the current parental trend in vaccine hesitancy?
During my childhood, polio terrified the country, killing and crippling at random. It lurked anywhere, came on as easily as a cold. Any fever, stiff neck or sore throat caused hysteria. Parents of young children today cannot imagine what a deadly epidemic is like. If you’re reading about the Ebola virus spreading through West Africa right now and the alarm that is causing, you can begin to understand the terror of polio. Today, a controversy swirls around the subject of vaccines. To me it is clear: it is a basic public health service for the government to require children to be vaccinated against polio. Society needs such protection. Considering my childhood ordeal, I cannot imagine forgoing the protection the polio vaccine provides.
What do you hope readers take away from POLIO BOULEVARD?
First and foremost, I hope readers find this a good, exotic, well-told story that they can’t put down. I hope that the story encourages those who are ill or have ill children to try to focus on what’s positive in the situation, and not to be defined by it. You are who you are, no matter the illness, and it helps not to lose that sense of yourself. This brings me to the reason the book appeals to young readers. To read about a serious obstacle in life that doesn’t touch you directly – it’s in a book! – is one way of conquering and mastering fear. People like to read about disease and I hope that the story of my childhood illness shows how even in the throes of serious disease, one can be confident, have fun and live a good life. I also hope that those vaccine-hesitant parents who struggle with the issue, will find the story of my illness thought provoking, in terms of what is was like to live in a culture with an ongoing horrifying epidemic.
What are you working on next?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt makes many appearances in POLIO BOULEVARD and now has become the sole focus of my current writing project. Three years after he was stricken with polio, he bought a houseboat with a friend and named it the Larooco. From 1924-26, he spent a few months each winter in the Florida Keys on the boat. While there, he kept a nautical log, writing longhand each day about fish caught, weather, the boat’s route, engine trouble, guests, and meals. The Larooco Log is entrancing and is the centerpiece of my new project.
Karen Chase is the author of two volumes of poetry: Kazimierz Square and Bear, as well as Land of Stone: Breaking Silence Through Poetry and Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India. Her next writing project is about FDR.