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Post-Polio Health (ISSN 1066-5331)

Vol. 18, No. 1, Winter 2002

Improving Quality of Life: Healing Polio Memories (pg 2)

Memories of Having Polio

Experiences of having had polio differ. Many survivors experienced supportive responses from their families, medical communities and school systems. For some, a sense of community developed in hospital units, leading to lifelong friendships. For others, new bonds of support have developed over the last 20 years through post-polio support groups and related organizations.

While many people had supportive experiences, others encountered negative situations including bullying, emotional alienation, humiliation or even physical abuse.

Because polio is a contagious disease, children were usually hospitalized in isolation, some in iron lungs. Often, they endured lengthy hospitalizations and subsequent surgeries involving further separations from their families.

Until the early 1960s, little was known about the impact of these experiences on child development. The medical field functioned with an authoritarian approach that did not always take into account the emotional and psychological needs of the child. The system had not yet learned about the important support role that family members could play in the hospitalization and medical rehabilitation of young children.

Today, we know that when children are separated from their primary caretakers, they are at risk of developing attachment difficulties that may affect their ability to maintain healthy relationships in adulthood. Some of the factors that may determine the impact of a separation are the age of the child, what is communicated at the time, and the quality of support in the parents' absence (Lieberman, 1987). Attachment difficulties in adulthood relate to problems forming and maintaining long-term intimate relationships as in the following example.

A survivor reported that, as a child, she was hospitalized for polio far away from home. Her parents were unable to travel the distance, so she rarely saw them. When she would cry for her parents, the staff labeled her crying as being "weak." As an adult, she fought similar feelings of intense loneliness. Through psychotherapy, she identified the impact of the staff's mistreatment and the separation from her parents on her present difficulties of consulting health professionals, expressing emotions and developing intimate relationships.

Painful medical procedures, unsuccessful surgeries, discrimination, abuse and the loss of friends who died from polio are all examples of disturbing experiences that may, consciously or unconsciously, deter individuals from pursuing medical and emotional assistance. Many people have forgotten much of their polio experience; some were too young to remember. When they understand the possible reasons for feeling anxious or avoidant, survivors may find it easier to seek the assistance they need. The following questions may help survivors remember how they perceived what happened to them.

As individuals deal with the late effects of polio, they may encounter smells, sights, tastes, sounds or experiences that cause emotional reactions, reminding them of when they had polio. Memories are often repressed until an unconscious trigger takes the survivor back in time. Triggers are cues coming from either the external environment or internal unconscious reactions related to past trauma (Napier, 1993).

For example, an adult survivor recently reacted with pleasure to the smell of the plaster when having a leg brace fitted. It reminded her of when she was eight years old and was able to walk with a leg brace after a successful surgery. For her, the smell of plaster represented a positive association.

Triggers, however, are often unconscious cues that can cause intense negative reactions out of proportion to the current reality. The association may be obvious or subtle (Schiraldi, 2000). For example, grief triggers often relate to dates, seasons, holidays, memories relating to the age of a child in one's life, rituals, or music (Dayton, 1997). As the following example illustrates, a trigger may take the form of a bodily reaction, even though the person may not understand the reason (Napier, 1993).

"As an adult, when I would get into a swimming pool or lake, I would tense up, get short of breath, and, at times, have an anxiety attack. In therapy, I began to look at early polio memories and realized that my intense reaction stemmed from a hospital experience. When I was five years old, my polio treatment involved hot baths. One evening, a nurse left me alone in a bathtub, suspended on a net with water up to my chin. I was unable to move and had no way to call for the nurse, who had closed the door. I remember praying that I would not drown.

"Once I worked through the feelings and beliefs associated with that terrifying experience, I was able to get into a pool of water and breathe freely. Since then, exercising in warm water has become my most valuable form of exercise and a great source of comfort and energy."

Triggers are opportunities for survivors to understand the sources of their internal reactions, especially those that create obstacles in their health and relationships. However, even when triggers are not completely resolved, recognizing their sources can help in identifying ways to protect one's vulnerabilities.

Continued ...