Repeat Offender

Decades After Recovery, Polio Strikes Back

A disease and its victims, down but not out

By Peter Holley March 9, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Dr. Yi-Wen Michelle Pu of TIRR

Image: Courtesy TIRR

It seems that however rare it becomes, no disease is ever eradicated from the earth completely. Witness the January outbreak of measles among Disneyland visitors, or in Kelly G.’s case, the recurrence of an illness she thought she’d beaten a half-century ago. 

The first time she felt her right leg stop working, Kelly was 12 years old and a few weeks away from the first day of seventh grade at Sugar Land Junior High. One day she was a carefree kid playing tag with cousins, riding horses, and swimming in local watering holes at her family’s summer home in the Hill Country, the next she was laid up in a hospital in Kerrville, bedridden and gravely ill.

“I would try to walk and I would just fall,” she remembered. “Before that I’d never had any physical limitations at all.”

It was 1954 and Kelly—like tens of thousands of other American children—had contracted polio. For several years, ambulating was impossible without crutches and a cumbersome leg brace and corset. But Kelly worked hard to strengthen her upper body, refusing to give in to her disability, and by the time she was in high school, she had made a dramatic recovery. For the next 50 years Kelly would walk with a limp, but it never stopped her from hiking, camping, traveling, or exercising. Then one day, the old weakness returned.

“When my husband and I went to Europe I walked all around Croatia,” she said, “I had a fabulous time. Now I can't do that. If I'm going to walk around I have to be put in a wheelchair and pushed around.”

The diagnosis was post-polio syndrome, a slew of disabling symptoms that sometimes attacks victims decades after recovery. It’s been nearly 60 years since Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccines, but for many of the 140,000 Texans who contracted the disease during epidemics in the ’40s and ’50s, the disease lives on. (The official number is likely low, too, given the many Mexican and South American polio survivors who have since immigrated to the US). 

“Very few people have even heard of post-polio syndrome,” said Dr. Yi-Wen Michelle Pu, assistant clinical professor at Baylor College of Medicine, who treats Kelly at TIRR Memorial Hermann, where she heads the Specialty Rehabilitation Program. The 38-year-old Taiwanese native took over the program after Dr. Carlos Vallbona, a legendary member of TIRR’s staff and one of the world’s foremost authorities on post-polio syndrome, retired in 2013. She’s been busy ever since. “When I say I work with people suffering from this condition, most people don’t usually understand what I’m referring to.”

The symptoms, which are often confused with sudden aging, can be devastating, Pu told us. These include chronic pain, temperature sensitivity, extreme fatigue, and breathing problems caused by weakened chest muscles. 

“Some of them can get a full night’s sleep—eight to ten hours—and when they wake up they still feel very tired,” she said. Ridding patients of post-polio symptoms entirely is unrealistic, but they can often make great strides with rehabilitation and restructuring their lives. Pu likes this holistic approach to medicine, one that first interested her after she sustained an arm injury while hiking as a teenager back home in Taiwan. 

“I was able to experience the rehabilitation process as a patient,” she remembered. “It was my first exposure to not just treating the organ system, but treating the entire human being.”

The challenge in treating Kelly, Pu said, has been to teach the active 73-year-old to live a less frenetic lifestyle. Still, the former Fort Bend ISD school counselor can’t resist packing her days with activity and dreams of returning to cycling, even as Pu and her staff have encouraged her to slow down and use a wheelchair from time to time. 

“I’ve learned I can’t do it all,” said Kelly, even as she was about to leave on a family trip to Arkansas. “What they do at TIRR is teach you how to moderate what you need to do so that you can do even more in the end.” 

For the record, she did agree to use a wheelchair during the trip, though only from time to time.

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