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The Story About Polio Is Still Being Written

By Staff | Apr 23, 2009

JOHN AND ANGIE DAHM remember polio all too well. John was diagnosed with polio when he was 15. He and Angie worked with polio patients at the Kenny Institute in Minneapollis, MN, in their early years in health care. --Jane Whitmore photo

Polio has been eradicated in the United States, but its effects are still being felt. Today, those who endured the disease 50 and 60 years ago are now being treated for post polio syndrome.

John Dahm of Emmetsburg was 15 years old when he was diagnosed with polio.

After a trip to Minnesota where he had been swimming in a lake, John was baling hay the next day.

“I had such I headache and there were things I couldn’t remember,” he said.

After working in the field he rode his horse into town to see a girlfriend. His head hurt so bad he couldn’t even ride his horse home.

A trip to the doctor and a spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis: polio. He was moved to a hospital in Sioux City. John could move everything, but on the fourth day he couldn’t move a muscle.

John Dahm spent three months in the hospital. Like most children afflicted with polio, there could be no visitors. He could wave out the window to his family.

“Polio seemed to affect the very best: children, teenagers and young mothers. People were afraid of polio,” Dahm recalls. “Mine happened in the summer (after his freshman year in high school) and I missed the first half of my sophomore year. One of the kids in our school said, ‘I couldn’t beat up on you before, but I can now.’ I really didn’t think I deserved that.”

John Dahm spent three months in the hospital. His treatment included hot wool wraps, and soaking in the warm water of a hydrotank, both of which relaxed his muscles. With therapy and exercise he slowly regained the use of his muscles. His right leg and his right hand were the most severely affected. He has worn a brace around his torso all of his life.

“I did kind of good during my young years,” he said. “It was kind of a reprieve.”

John Dahm graduated form high school in 1953 and attended the Northwest Institute of Medical Technology in Minneapolis. Polio was still striking thousands.

“I applied as an orderly at the Kenny Institute and they snapped me up because of my knowledge of polio,” said Dahm.

John’s wife-to-be, Angie, was a nurse at the Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis. After working a shift at the hospital, she then went to work at the Kenny Institute for a second shift. There, the two met.

John graduated from the Northwest Institute in 1954 and came to Emmetsburg in 1955 where he started the lab at Palo Alto County Hospital. The polio epidemic had been curbed and the numbers were going down.

John and Angie were married. They made their home in Emmetsburg and raised nine children. John was a hunter and enjoyed sports with his family.

John worked at Palo Alto County Hospital in lab and x-ray. Ultrasound made its way into the lab in the 1980s. He retired in 2000 and worked as needed for another six years.

Angie worked at the old hospital part time as an OB nurse. In 1977 she became the public health nurse where she worked until 1991.

In their retirement years, polio is still a factor in their lives.

“The story is still being written,” John Dahm says about polio. “I had kind of a reprieve, but the after affects (of polio) are as bad as the original affects. I got to use those muscles for a while and now they’re gone. Now I can take just a few steps with a walker.”

Post polio syndrome (PPS) affects a significant number of people who had polio. John Dahm belongs to a post polio group out of Des Moines.

e credits Dr. Donna Bahls, a West Des Moines physician, and Dr. Richard Bruno with making advances in treatment of patients with PPS.

Dr. Bahls told John to stop trying to walk, to preserve the muscles he has. And she didn’t want him to fall.

“Now we know that polio stays with you throughout life,” said John. He is mobile with an electric wheelchair, in an effort to preserve his muscles.

As John and Angie sit around the table talking about the 1950s when polio was rampant, they remember the babies who died; the young children who could have no visitors; the people who spent up to a year in an iron lung so they were able to breathe. They recalled that people were frightened from mid-summer until the first frost that there might be another outbreak of polio that would affect their families.

“The Gates Foundation is doing a good thing,” said John. “They look for ways to make a difference. Everyone forgets how devastated families were before the polio vaccine. If there’s polio in the world, people are still at risk.”

John and Angie brought out an article in the March/April 2009 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. The article was about vaccine-preventable disease and highlighted the fact that people no longer understand the value of immunizing their children.

“Polio is still to be feared because there are people who don’t take the vaccine,” Angie said. “People are global and someone who is infected could bring it to the United States. My biggest fear is that polio, and even tuberculosis, could be re-introduced in our country.”