Fairfield resident Mark Shafer shares story of contracting polio as 5-year-old

Mark Shafer
Mark Shafer

If you’re looking for someone to tell you what it was like to live through a pandemic, you will do no better than Fairfield resident Mark Shafer.

Shafer was among the last round of people to contract polio, which he did in 1954, one year before physician Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine for the virus. Though he was only 5 years old at the time, Shafer remembers the incident like it was yesterday. That’s largely because the event was so traumatic for him as a little boy.

Shafer fell so ill that doctors summoned his parents to say their goodbyes. He was placed in an iron lung, an air-tight chamber that breathed for a person whose chest muscles could not muster the task.

Polio attacks the nerve cells in the body. It often forced young children to wear leg braces because they were too weak to walk on their own. In Shafer’s case, the disease drained him of strength throughout his body but especially his arms. Even after his immune system defeated the virus, it left scars that he’s still dealing with more than 60 years later. For instance, Shafer was born right handed, but the polio damaged his right arm and left hand. Because of this loss in strength in his right arm, Shafer essentially became left-handed, and has written with his left hand since 1955, though he can still perform some tasks like cutting with his right.

“Polio affected my feet by pulling the arch higher on the right side but not on the left,” Shafer said.

This zig-zag pattern of ailments, where the disease affected one side but not the other, occurs again and again throughout Shafer’s body from head to toe. One ankle is stronger than the other, and one hip joint stronger than the other.

“Some parts of my left are strong, and some parts of my right are strong. It’s not consistent,” Shafer said.

Polio vs. coronavirus

Shafer said polio was a very different beast from the coronavirus pandemic we’re now experiencing. First and foremost, he said the public knows much more about the coronavirus than it did about polio during the “polio years” of the 1940s and 1950s.

“I think polio was more of a mysterious disease,” Shafer said.

The world’s governments of today are mounting campaigns to encourage or require their citizens to wear masks, maintain a distance from each other, and to remain indoors as much as possible. During the polio years, in contrast, not much was known about how that virus was spread, or what steps should be taken to mitigate it, but it was definitely something the public worried about.

“In the summers, sometimes they’d close the swimming pools,” Shafer said, reflecting on that era. “People were wary of large groups, and it seemed that they were most fearful when it was hot.”

Mark wasn’t the only member of his family to contract polio. His younger brother Lynn got it, too, and though they’re not sure, he suspects another brother, Herb, had a mild case of it. Oddly, none of Mark’s classmates at his country school got the virus.

“Our mom had a hard time finding babysitters because they were afraid they would bring the disease home to their own kids,” Shafer said.

One brave woman did babysit the Shafer children, Mary Louise Sutherlin, grandmother of Fairfield Middle School teacher Tena Edlin. Shafer said he didn’t learn Mary Louise was his babysitter until well into adulthood, and was so glad he had the chance to thank her for that a year before she died.

How it all began

Shafer did not have a happy birthday in 1954. He was turning 5 years old, and little did he know it at the time, but that day would turn into one of the worst days of his life. It was the day he was diagnosed with polio. It’s amazing to hear Shafer recall all the details from that day. He acknowledged that his memory is very keen, that he probably remembers more from this episode as a 5 year old than most people remember about their entire elementary school years.

“That morning, I was feeling feverish at school, and the teacher asked if I wanted to go home,” Shafer said. “Of course, I don’t want to go home because it’s my birthday and I don’t want to miss the party.”

Shafer said he was under the false impression that his country school would throw a party for him because it was his birthday.

“I didn’t know, because it was my first year at school,” he said.

Mark was still feverish that night, so he slept on the couch. He tossed and turned all night, so his parents took him to the doctor. Mark remembers that he was on the floor of the waiting room playing with miniature cars. Another boy in the room wanted to play with him, but his mother wouldn’t let him, sensing that Mark was stricken with a disease.

The doctor did a spinal tap on Mark to diagnosis what was wrong with him. When the test result came back, it fulfilled his parents’ worst fears: he had polio. The next thing Mark knew, his parents were driving him to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.

The staff checked Shafer into the hospital and put him in a crib, which rankled the 5-year-old.

“I thought, ‘For heaven’s sake, I don’t need a crib,’” Shafer recalls.

That night, Mark was playing with miniature cars again on his bed when he realized this was no ordinary sickness.

“I can remember driving a little red truck on my leg, and each time I ran it up my leg, it got harder,” Shafer recalled. “The strength was pouring out of my arms like a running faucet.”

Iron lung

Shafer spent six months in the hospital. For part of that time, he’s not sure how long, he was in the iron lung, an air-tight chamber that helps a person breathe. Shafer learned later that the doctor in charge of his ward was sent home to get a vacuum cleaner, which he hooked up to the iron lung to increase the pressure.

“That vacuum cleaner saved my life,” Shafer said.

The iron lung had a foam rubber collar that fit snug around Mark’s neck. He said it was so tight that it felt like his “face was being peeled off.”

“You could have a mirror up to your face so you could see the people you were talking to, but I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to see my own blood-shot eyes,” Shafer said. “I was vain even as a 5-year-old.”

Shafer remembers that he was in the iron lung when Santa Claus came to visit the hospital. He cried. He’s not sure why, perhaps because he realized his Christmas would not be like that of other children.

“I was so mad at myself for crying. Why was I upset? What were all those tears about?” Shafer asked himself.

Mark remembers one fellow patient, a little girl whose bed was next to his. She was extremely crabby and nasty, Mark recalls. One night, he woke up and saw she wasn’t there. He asked a nurse what became of her, and she matter-of-factly told Mark that the little girl had died.

“Here I am, 5 years old in my own beleaguered condition, thinking about a little girl dying in the night,” he said. “The nurse could have been more tactful about it, but it shows what happens to people who are so harried and overwhelmed.”

Shafer was apparently on death’s door, too, and his parents were summoned to visit him and say their goodbyes. Shafer developed pneumonia as a result of the virus, which led to fluid collecting in his lungs, which had to be removed through a tube down his throat. He remembers going through physical therapy, and particularly liking the exercises in the swimming pool.

“Ms. Lane, my therapist, was extremely pretty, and I remember having a crush on her right away,” Mark laughed.

Lingering ailments

After Mark left the hospital, he realized that although the virus might have left him, certain ailments remained. For instance, he learned quickly that he had to be careful when he ran because he tripped easily. He remembers getting the wind knocked out of him a few times. That meant that, as he grew, he couldn’t participate effectively in sports.

Shafer’s younger brother Lynn got polio around the same time as Mark, when Lynn was 18 months old. It’s had a lingering effect on his hips, making it difficult for him to walk. The family believes Mark’s brother Herb had a mild case of the virus, which made one leg slightly longer than the other.

Mark said he tries not to wallow in self-pity, but he admitted that envy is a challenge for him. He said watching someone run up and down the stairs gives him a twinge. He’s constantly having to find novel ways to perform simple tasks, like opening a bottle of vitamins, to overcome the disabilities polio left him.

“It takes a lot of physical energy to plan my next move, to strategize how to make it from here to there,” he said. “Now that I’m 70, I’m giving myself permission to say no to situations that are needlessly exhausting.”

Those in Fairfield who know Mark likely know him as the long-time art teacher in the Fairfield School District, as well as the director of the Carnegie Historical Museum. They may also know him for the portraits he’s painted for the Fairfield Entrepreneurial Association Hall of Fame.

Mark just finished a painting last year dedicated to a very famous polio patient: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the painting, FDR is seen in his wheelchair and cast as a giant statue. Though polio left the former president crippled, his staff went to great lengths to hide this fact from the American public. Shafer said he painted the portrait after reading a book on FDR, and he completed the work last year to commemorate his own 65th anniversary of contracting and surviving polio.