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Brandt's Rants

Brandt's Rants

Parallels of the COVID-19 and Polio Epidemics

Brandt, Robert MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000697716.41399.f7
    COVID-19, polio, epidemic, pandemic

    Sometimes when I find out a patient works in the medical field, I have to take a deep cleansing breath before seeing him. Doctors, nurses, and techs, well, we often make terrible patients. Sometimes the patient only tangentially works in health care, but feels entitled to some special privileges. The following is only a minimally stretched truth.

    Patient: “Yeah, my sister's step-cousin works for NASA in their space nursing program, so I'm pretty sure I know what is going on. It's obviously scurvy. I did my research. SCUR-VY!”

    Me: “Your sister's step-cousin?”

    Patient: “I did my research. I've learned a few things.”

    Me: “Didn't you come here for constipation? Why do you think it's scurvy?”

    Patient: “Yar! Do I be needin' to be talkin' this way now?”

    Me: “Yes, yes, you do. That's how we treat scurvy and constipation. Take some of ye ol' MiraLAX and mag citrate, and be ready for yer keelhaulin'.”

    Some clinical encounters with health care workers, however, teach me a great deal. When I found out that my 91-year-old quick-witted patient had been a nurse for several decades, I had to ask her about her experiences. Grace came to the ED for her chest pain and ultimately required admission. Lucky for me, the shift allowed a little extra time to spend with her, and she proceeded to drop wisdom bomb after wisdom bomb on my brain.

    As with many patients currently, our conversation drifted toward the pandemic. Grace said she started her nursing career in 1950 on the East Coast during another epidemic—polio. I knew a little about it, but Grace taught me more. In Latin, the word doctor means to teach. Occasionally, I come out of a patient's room realizing that I was the student.

    Don't Give Up Hope

    “The similarities are quite disheartening,” Grace said. “Most people were scared out of their minds and rightfully so. Nobody wanted to go outside. All of the beaches were closed, the pools were closed, and all the movie theaters were closed. Day after day, I'd go into work and inspect all of the iron lungs to make sure none of them had any leaks or problems with the bellows. In a giant room, you would see contraptions lined up one next to another next to another. A whole room just full of them. The only thing you would see would be a head sticking out of the top of these things.

    “You'd think that would be the worst part of the disease. It wasn't. Polio was like two separate diseases. One type made it so you couldn't breathe, one would make you lame. It was really hard as a nurse walking down the pediatric wards. We'd see all these kids, babies really, and they'd be moving around except they wouldn't be moving one leg, and we'd know that kid had a long road ahead of her.

    “And some people then, just like now, would ignore health care. They'd ignore people trying to help them. They'd ignore advice from people who worked the front lines and saw the terrible tragedy day after day. I had friends, close friends, who would not follow advice.

    “But we never gave up hope. We knew people were working on it. The March of Dimes and a whole lot of people were working hard. Hope, even after seeing that, kept us going.

    “I still remember the day. It was April 12, 1955, when the vaccine came out. I cried. Five years I'd been a nurse dealing with lame patients and rooms full of people in iron lungs. Then, like that, we had a way to stop it. I just cried.”

    When I left the room, I saw so many similarities between the epidemic then and our situation now. Then and now we have misinformation. Then and now we have many in the public who refuse to listen to advice from the medical community. Especially now it seems that people are unwilling to accept a minor inconvenience (wearing a mask) to benefit people other than themselves.

    But then and now we have hope.

    She never gave up hope.

    We should not give up hope.

    Yes, this is awful, but there will be an end.

    Stay safe. Stay strong. Stay together. Don't give up hope.

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    Dr. Brandtis an emergency physician with the Grand River Emergency Medical Group in Grand Rapids, MI. He was the winner of the 2008 Writer's Digest Short Short Story Writing Competition ( Read his blog and other articles at, follow him on Twitter@brandtwriting, and read his past columns at

    Copyright © 2020 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.
    • hayes31910:14:06 PMI worked with Dr. Brandt. He is spot on that we in the helping professions (I am a mental health/substance abuse counselor) need to listen to what our patients teach us. Thanks, Rob.