Decades later, polio survivors face new challengesLewes man hopes to establish local post-polio support group
When Jim Miller was born in 1931, disabled children were considered throwaways.
Born with polio, which gave him limited use of his left side, Miller had to struggle for every step he learned to take. But he said he holds his head high, knowing he has succeeded.
“My father always told me, God took away the ability of your left side, but he gave you more up here,” said Miller, pointing to his head.
Polio, or infantile paralysis as it was known when Miller was born, limits what he can do with his left arm and leg. As a child, he never had to use a wheelchair or a cane, but he still remembers always being the last student up the stairs and the last student down the stairs.
Miller recalls hours of therapies as a youngster living near Norristown, Pa. He and other children with polio would spend days working at a large ship's wheel bolted to the wall in a small room at the hospital. The children would be soaked in sweat trying to turn the wheel 360 degrees. Most patients with polio cannot make their hands or arms rotate in a circular pattern, Miller said.
“Our doctors were very creative then,” Miller said.
His parents also tried out many ancient Russian remedies and Native American herbs and tinctures – anything to try to cure the illness. While Miller was born with polio, neither his parents nor his siblings were ever affected by the virus.
Polio is caused by the poliomyelitis virus, which attacks the central nervous system, in some cases crippling hands and legs. In the 1940s and 1950s polio attacked an average of 35,000 people annually, usually children, in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The polio vaccine was released by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955. One of the most effective childhood vaccines, it has nearly eliminated polio in the United States, although pockets of the disease appear from time to time, usually among unvaccinated communities such as the Amish.
Still, years after surviving the disease, patients may be affected by post-polio syndrome, a weakening of the muscles already affected by polio. Symptoms include fatigue and muscle atrophy. The condition can be life threatening when respiratory muscles or throat muscles needed for swallowing are affected; in many cases, post-polio leads to pneumonia.
Miller, who suffers from post polio syndrome, said after retiring to Sussex County in 2003 with his wife of 56 years, Dolores, he learned about a post-polio support group that had been meeting for 25 years in New Castle County.
“I got so excited,” Miller said. “Here was a group of people to share experiences with, and I didn't even know it existed.”
Neither Miller nor Dolores drive, so they took public transportation to the Delcastle Inn Restaurant in Wilmington to meet the support group. It took three hours on the bus to get to the one-hour meeting, Miller said.
But it was worth it.
“For the first time in my life, I'm talking to people my own age about polio,” Miller said. “I was able to discuss some of the problems that I haven't been able to talk to others about.”
It was an eye-opening experience. Most of the support group members used wheelchairs to get around, while Miller is able to walk inside his apartment, and other small areas, but because of his fear of falling, Miller uses a wheeled walker outside his apartment.
Miller now wants to start a post-polio support group in Sussex County, so he connect with others in the Cape Region.
“Since I found out about this group, I want everyone to know about it,” Miller said. “If I'm here in Sussex, there are probably others, and if there is enough interest, we could meet here.”
The support group has attended March of Dimes marches in Delaware to show support for an organization that started helping polio babies decades ago.
Paula Carradin was the March of Dimes poster child in 1949 and now attends the post-polio group. To help celebrate the March of Dimes 75th anniversary this year, support group members have written anecdotes as part of a publication that will be used during anniversary events.
“Everyone in the group is over 75, so we've been around and remember the March of Dimes,” Miller said.
“Even with polio, we've all done well,” Miller said.
After high school, Miller said it was hard for people with disabilities like himself to get jobs. He knows the only reason he became a successful materials director for so many companies was because a friend got him his first job.
Now his resume includes titles such as director, supervisor, manager and executive vice president.
It's not too shabby for a man with two different feet, said Miller, who wears a size 9 on his right foot and a size 8.5 on his left foot.
“My life has been a fortunate one,” said Miller, who has five daughters, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
For more information on the support group or to join a Sussex County support group, call Miller at 302-644-1156 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.