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A Summer Thought and Why I’m Thankful

By Mary Beth Petraco

During this time of summer vacations and large family gatherings, I’m often prompted to reflect on my mother’s life and how it was changed forever one summer that she spent on holiday with her parents and two siblings.  The summer of 1923, when my mother was just three years old, is when she contracted polio.

Dr Koslap-Petraco celebrates her mother Mildred Bliss Koslap on her 90th birthday.

During that period in our history, it was common for families like mine to escape the heat of New York City and travel upstate to cooler weather.  That summer, the family chose to reside in a guest house in Utica, NY.  My mom arrived to Utica a fully-functioning and fun-loving child, but on a subsequent Sunday morning, she remembers not being able to get out of bed due to paralysis on the right side of her body.  She was able to scream out for help initially, but her voice consistently diminished throughout the day, only to disappear for a week.

Her father called for medical assistance, but during this time in Utica, people strictly followed what were known as Blue Laws—forbidding any type of work or major exertion to be made on Sunday.  With time, my grandfather was able to convince a kind-hearted Jewish doctor  to come over.  He instantly recognized my mother’s condition as polio.  The periodic massages and other treatments that my mother had to undergo were hassle enough for a young child, but the emotional strain for her was even worse.  After a short time, her siblings were not allowed to play with her, for fear that they might come down with polio themselves.  And when my mother—born right-handed—entered school, she was constantly punished by the nuns who directed her to write using her right hand.  What they did not understand was that my mother had lost the ability to grasp objects with this hand as a result of her polio.  To this day she remains able to hold nothing more than a glass of water with her right hand.

To me, it’s important that I never lose sight of the experiences like this that my mother and her family had to endure that one hot summer in 1923.  What’s even more important is that I acknowledge the fact that polio is no longer a significant threat to the health of people in America.  Science and research have delivered so much to us, including the means to eliminate the threat of major preventable diseases like polio. 

 My mother celebrated her 90th birthday this year and she is very grateful for the long life that she has been able to live. But, she still bears the scars of polio which serve as evidence of the impact this disease has had on her life, her parents’ lives, her siblings’ lives . . . my life.  This summer and this Independence Day, I can say that I’m grateful for the advances science has bestowed upon us.  And I’m happy that my children will never have to suffer through the same experiences thanks to the preventive power of vaccination.

Mary Beth Koslap-Petraco, DNP, PNP-BC, CPNP is the Coordinator for Child Health at the Suffolk County Department of Health Services in New York, where she is also a primary care provider. Dr. Koslap-Petraco is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Preceptor for graduate and undergraduate students at the Stony Brook University School of Nursing, a fellow of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP), and a member of the advisory board of the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC).  She has served on the National Vaccine Advisory Committee (NVAC) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and she continues to be a consultant for the CDC.

  1. July 7, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    It’s important for those who’ve seen firsthand the effects of disease to share that with those who have not seen such things. Thank you, Mary Beth. Your mom’s experience reminds all of us to vaccinate rather than risk infection.

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  2. July 7, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    As a parent, I’m enormously thankful that I don’t even have to think about polio, thanks to the hard work of everyone who participated in the research to create polio vaccines and lobbied and raised funds to support that research. It is particularly impressive that this disease, which terrified generations of parents, was essentially under control in the United States within a matter of a few years.

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  1. August 18, 2011 at 10:46 am

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