McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

August 22, 2012

Dr. Shuller recalls Polio epidemic

By Jeanne LeFlore
Staff Writer

McALESTER — The summer of 1949 brings memories of widespread panic and helplessness as the Polio epidemic spread it’s dark wings over the city of McAlester, according to a long time McAlester pediatrician.

Dr. Thurman Shuller, 98, was a young Pediatrician in McAlester in 1949 and he said it was a summer he will never forget.

 He said the city’s parks, pools, theaters and even Sunday schools were empty as the Polio epidemic ravaged the town.
“There was panic everywhere,” he said. “We never had an epidemic like that before and no one was sure how to treat it.”
He said he diagnosed 55 children that year. “It started with a fever and muscle weakness and difficulty breathing,” Shuller said.
Some would recover fully but others suffered paralysis and even death, he said.
Nationwide that year of the 42,173 cases some 2,720 deaths occurred from polio, according to cdc.gov.
Dr. Shuller a longtime member of the Rotary Club of McAlester said he’s proud of what the club has done to help eradicate the Polio virus. “Rotary is working to eliminate Polio worldwide.”
And although it’s been eradicated in the Western Hemisphere he said the virus is still spreading in other countries.
In fact the Centers for Disease Control reports that the spread of polio has never stopped in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
 The Polio virus has been reintroduced and continues to spread in Chad and Democratic Republic of the Congo after the spread of the virus was previously stopped, according to cdc.gov.
Shuller said the Rotary club has made a commitment to the complete eradication of polio which cannot happen until the entire world is free of the disease.
He said the memories are still strong as he recalled a day when his wife, Joanna, called him at his office one  during that summer with terrifying news.
 “I was in the middle of an office full of patients when my wife called and said my 2-year-old daughter had a fever. I had just made a Polio diagnosis on a little boy who had been playing in our backyard,” he said.
“I was terrified, there was no way I could get away from the office.”
He said that night was frightening but the next morning his little girl had fully recovered. 
“I became even more empathetic for the parents of the children I was treating,” he said.
Today, Shuller said he still attends Rotary Club meetings and he said he regularly supports the PolioPlus program which helps the club fund operational costs, such as transportation, vaccine delivery, social mobilization, and training of health workers, and support surveillance activities.
Meanwhile Shuller said the summer of 1949 wasn’t the end of the epidemic as a vaccination wasn’t licensed until 1962.
 “There were more the next year, but not nearly as many.
“It was a terrible year,” Shuller said.

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Contact Jeanne LeFlore at jleflore@mcalesternews.com.