Polio scare left mark on school days

By Bill Vossler

When Gene Bjorklun of St. Cloud was riding in back of the ambulance being transported 30 miles to the hospital, he thought it would be nice if he was put in the same room as his friend Jim Bjorklund, who also had come down with polio.

As a 19-year-old Gene Bjorklun, of St. Cloud, was diagnosed with polio. Bjorklun, 86, now lives in St. Cloud. Photo by Bill Vossler

Gene, now 86, was 19 years old in 1953 and ready to attend the University of Nebraska as a junior. “This was going to be my last week at home before going back to Lincoln on Sept 14.”

On Sept. 8 he heard that his good friend and high school basketball cohort had been taken to the hospital in Hastings, Nebraska, with polio. “This was a big shock, not only because Jim was a fine athlete and good friend, but also because polio was probably the most feared disease of that time. It was a devastating illness that resulted in crippling and death.”

The year before, 1952, was the worst year on record for polio, 52,000 cases, 21,000 paralyzed, and 3,000 deaths. So getting polio was more than worrisome. Several people that Gene knew had been put in iron lungs, and some had died.

“I remember that growing up, there were all sorts of theories about its cause, and people didn’t let their kids go swimming or eat watermelon as they feared the disease was related to those things. Mosquito bites were also thought to be associated with polio.” Eventually transmission was found to come from human contact, or contaminated food or water.

On Sept. 9, Gene was out with his friends for the evening, and began to develop a headache. “It became increasingly severe. I decided I should go home and go to bed. I was also feeling pains in my back.”

His parents were still up, surprised he was home so early. “Mom took my temperature, and it was pretty high, about 102. So I took some aspirin and went to bed. My headache was really bad, but I did manage to fall asleep.”

He’d never had headaches before, much less one that severe, so he began to think something was seriously wrong. “I didn’t want to think polio, but, because of Jim, that was in the back of my mind.”

Gene Bjorklun his senior year playing basketball for Minden, Nebraska. Contributed photo

The next morning Gene’s parents called Dr. John Finkner, who, after hearing the symptoms, decided to take a spinal tap. “I was told to lie on my side and curve my body, so he could insert a needle between my vertebrae and draw out some spinal fluid, which hurt badly for a brief period of time.”

The doctor said he was going to take it to the hospital at Hastings for a test. “He didn’t mention polio, but we all knew what the test was for.”

Gene stayed in bed with a severe headache and backache, and the doctor returned in the afternoon. “He said the hospital didn’t think there was enough fluid to test, so he had to tap my spine again.”

After Dr. Finkner returned, he said the test was positive for polio and that an ambulance would take him the Mary Lanning Hospital for treatment. “I wasn’t particularly fearful. I was in denial for a while, not really believing that this could be happening to me. I remember thinking that I might be crippled and not be able to play basketball again, a thought I tried to keep out of my mind.”

His roommate ended up being Jim Bjorklund, and his reaction to his polio was different than Gene’s. “He seemed to sleep a lot. He had bulbar polio, which attacks the pulmonary system and makes breathing difficult. He was never in danger of paralysis, but was in danger of dying if the polio prevented his lungs from working.” Which would have meant an iron lung.

Gene’s polio was paralytic. “The severe headache, high temperature, and backache persisted the first few days in the hospital. I was not given any special treatment. The doctor said I would have to wait. If the headache and temperature went away and the backache persisted, then I would probably be looking at some paralysis, and whatever therapy was needed.”

Three or four days later Gene’s temperature came down. His headache disappeared. “So too, thankfully, did my backache. The doctor said I was recovering nicely, and would probably not have any serious lasting effects from the disease. Those were joyous words to hear.“

Gene Bjorklun stands in front of Nebraska High School’s Sports Hall of Fame Dominant Dynasties Award Board, which shows that his town of Minden, and the basketball teams he played on, won the state’s first award. Contributed photo

Testing showed Gene did have some weakness in his left leg. “The doctor said it was not serious and would probably go away with normal activity.” Both he and Jim were released on the same day, in good shape.

In fact, so good that Gene returned to basketball two months later, and scored 16 points in that first game. “That boosted my morale considerably,” Gene said. But the polio scare caused him to miss the fall semester of his junior year, delaying his graduation until June of 1956.

Jim also came out of his polio experience very well, returning to play his high school team’s last four football games and leading their town of Minden, Nebraska, to the state high school basketball tournament.

Seven months after Gene’s attack, in April 1954, the Salk vaccine was approved by the FDA and polio became a non-threatening illness in the United States.

For the next 10 years or so Gene noticed that under mental or emotional stress he developed severe pain in his left leg. “I thought that it was related to the polio, but that stopped also. So I was a very fortunate young man to escape polio with such a minimal problem.”

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