Around the Island

Learning to live every day: Islander stricken with ‘post-polio’ has a message

The six-year old girl put her feet on the floor as she got out of bed one morning in the Brooklyn apartment she shared with her parents. One leg gave way and she collapsed on the floor.

More than 70 years later, she got out of bed at her home on the Island and fell down, but this time it was her other leg that gave way.

“It’s called post-polio,” Nancy Butts said one morning last week in the kitchen of her bright, welcoming house on an unmarked road up a hill off South Midway Road.

“A friend came one day and wanted to know if I was in the witness protection program,” Ms. Butts said in her warm voice, which still has echoes of the pavement hardness of her native Bensonhurst.

As she moved around her kitchen with the aid of a rolling walker, two active — very — dogs greeted the visitor, but only one belonged to Ms. Butts. “That one,” she pointed at a large, happy and unruly fellow, is a friend’s dog who spent most of his days with her and whom she called “the man who came to dinner.”

An animal lover, she has worked for Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons for years in a variety of roles. With her post-polio diagnosis, disabling her more severely, she called ARF to say she wouldn’t be able to work for them, but “they said, ‘no, we’d do everything to accommodate you,’” Ms. Butts said.

Seated at the kitchen table, she recalled that fall to the floor when she was a child.

“I had no symptoms, was a healthy girl until that moment when I got out of bed,” she said.

Taken to the hospital in an ambulance, she was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, or polio. There was no cure. She would be in the hospital for a year, and then had another year of physical therapy.

She described the ward she was assigned, with one side of the large room with patients in “iron lungs” — tanks for respiration that some polio patients would have to be put in since the disease paralyzed muscles in their chests, preventing them from breathing on their own.

“The other side of the room across from the iron lungs, were beds, with those who could breathe,” Ms. Butts said. But for them polio struck one or both of their legs, killing the muscles and making it impossible to walk.

“I’m one of the fortunate cases,” Ms. Butts said.

The year she was in the hospital, with only one visiting day a week — “my father never missed a day” — she was given therapy, fitted into a leg brace and taught to walk.

There was no cure, and there was also no vaccine against the disease. That would come on April 12, 1955, when Jonas Salk’s vaccine became widely available and reduced the possibility of people contracting the crippling disease to almost zero.

But it was too late for Ms. Butts and thousands of others.

Before that breakthrough of medical science, the word “polio” struck terror in families, when it meant that, like Ms. Butts, the victim would be disabled for the rest of their lives, with one leg locked in a brace, or with both legs turned useless, like President Franklin Roosevelt, and a wheelchair as the only option.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has estimated that before the Salk vaccine, polio epidemics were common in the United States. Just before the vaccine was widely distributed in the early 1950s, the CDC estimated that in one epidemic, 13,000 to 20,000 cases of paralyzed people were reported.

In September, Ms. Butts read in the Reporter about a small group of parents who made a case before the Board of Education to allow their children to stay in school even though they hadn’t had them immunized against a number of communicable diseases.

Few reasons were given for their refusal to have their kids vaccinated, except one theme seemed common among the parents, that the government should not be mandating how they care for their children’s health.

“I’d love to sit down and talk with them,” Ms. Butts said. “I’d tell them, ‘Please vaccinate.’ I’d let them see me and what happens.”

Besides polio, other dangerous diseases such as smallpox have been virtually eliminated because of vaccinations. On the other hand, the movement to not vaccinate children has seen a rise in the number of measles cases.

Ms. Butts said, “I want to wake people up to the facts. I would come to them, or they could come to me.”

Ms. Butts has had a remarkable life, in spite of her disability. She married, had three children and has eight grandchildren.

Two years ago, in November 2017, she found herself on the floor of her bedroom, 70 or so years from that morning in Bensonhurst.

She managed to get up and drove to her daughter’s house, who took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with “post-polio,” where the disease has been lying dormant for many years and reappears.

Now, Ms. Butts has braces on both legs and can no longer drive. But she manages to get around. “Thank God for the Senior Center,” she said.