Polio survivor shares his story with children too young to know the disease
These seventh-graders are part of a generation unaware of the horrors of polio, which crippled and killed children in the first half of the 1900s.
PARKERS PRAIRIE, Minn. — By the time Marlene Schoeneck’s seventh-graders were born in 2009 or 2010, polio had faded into a distant nightmare, one of those collective traumas that even some of their grandparents are too young to remember.
“I heard of it but I didn’t know what it was,” said one of her students, Peyton Skoglund, 12.
“I never heard about polio,” said classmate Taya Arvidson, 13.
The science teacher decided it was time for them to learn. As part of a lesson on microbiology and disease, she connected them with polio survivor Richard Hardine, author of "Lessons Learned: My Lifelong Journey with Polio,” available for sale on Amazon.
Hardine, who was born in Illinois in 1950 and who now lives in the Alexandria, Minnesota, area, contracted the most severe form of polio at 9 months, just as he was starting to walk. He spent time in an iron lung and, although he did eventually learn to walk, his lower body never fully developed and he fell frequently.
Now in his early 70s, he suffers from post-polio syndrome and uses a wheelchair to get around.
Schoeneck read Hardine’s book to her class, and then he connected with her class via Zoom in December. The students were curious about how the disease affected him as a child and as an adult. He explained the disease to them and talked about how the polio vaccine halted the disease in the U.S.
Polio does still exist globally, according to the World Health Organization. Although there were only 22 reported cases in 2017, there are two countries that have never stopped polio transmission — Afghanistan and Pakistan. That means that it could flare up in other countries too.
“As long as a single child remains infected with poliovirus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease,” the World Health Organization warns. “The poliovirus can easily be imported into a polio-free country and can spread rapidly amongst unimmunized populations.”
Hardine also answered the student’s questions, which ranged from Taya’s curiosity about how long it takes him to get ready in the morning (answer: it’s actually pretty quick) to Peyton’s interest in Hardine’s Lionel model trains.
Autumn Hartman, 13, said she appreciated learning more about vaccines, which she thinks are a good thing that help people. She also liked how Hardine focuses on what he can do instead of what he can’t.
“He found a way to make everything work and he had a positive attitude,” she said.
Hardine said he was pleased that Schoeneck reached out to him, and he was happy to talk to her students. He has also heard from people with post-polio syndrome as well as a developer who wants to build apartments for people with disabilities.
He has found that the COVID pandemic has created more interest and awareness of polio.
“The COVID thing has come to light, there’s been a little more conversation about what it used to be like back in the '50s.”
One of the big differences between then and now is that polio affected children. While children can die of COVID, this pandemic's worst impact falls most heavily on older people.
“I definitely think COVID isn’t as bad as polio in my opinion,” Peyton said. “It doesn’t come anywhere near.”
Schoeneck shared a personal story with the class about finding her mother's polio vaccination card from 1962. Her mother had kept it all those decades among her items, and Schoeneck found it after her mom died.
“It meant so much to her that they were able to do that and protect themselves and their family," she said. "People have forgotten what these awful diseases are like.”