Living With Polio


William G. Stothers

Snow and bone-chilling cold are making this a brutal winter across North America. And Phil the groundhog says it will go on for another six weeks.

Bad news for people stuck in this kind of weather, especially polio survivors. We know the snow-choked wheelchair wheels, snow-banked sidewalks and curb cuts, melting messes indoors, and that piercing wind chill.

But polio survivors are nothing if not adaptable. From around the winter wonderland, we have some stories.

“I feel very shaky walking outside in the winter,” says Ann Crocker in Maine. “As balance diminishes, it is virtually impossible to catch myself and not fall if I start to slip. I use tall walking sticks to get around. My husband puts on metal cane tips that have four adjustable prongs that grip into snow and ice. Whenever I enter a building, I push a small lever and the prongs spring up so as not to harm flooring, leaving just the regular rubber tips on the end of the sticks.

“In the winter, I lose some of my independence, as my husband usually drives me wherever I need to go. Cold weather also tends to shrink my muscles, so with already having smaller or less dense muscles, I lose even more strength and endurance. Nevertheless, I love the changing seasons in Maine and don’t want to move away.”

College student Grace Rossow in Missouri wears a full-length leg brace. “The most useful thing I have for winter is my pair of Yaktrax. They are attachments to your shoes, like mini chains. They help me walk on ice. I also have really heavy-duty snow boots to help keep my leg warm. I’ve also found a heated blanket is the best thing ever! It helps keep the circulation in my leg all throughout the year.

“If the snow is awful I won’t go to class but usually I can make it. The university usually clears well, except for the recent snow storm. It has been a very snowy winter.”

“My leg always gets icy cold in the winter,” says Soonja Cho in Aurora, Colorado. “I wear an extra leg warmer, tights, long johns and heavy socks to keep warm. At night I often have a heat wrap around my leg along with a blanket. My two dogs also snuggle tight against my cold leg as if they sense the coldness. If it snows or is bitterly cold, I stay home. If it’s just cold, I put on extra layers and snow-proof boots and use my canes or my walker.”

Dan Wilson, who teaches history at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, walks in the house and uses a scooter outside for distances. He gets around pretty well with his scooter in winter, but has the college operations number on speed dial if he meets snow problems on campus. The necessary tasks get done, but he gives more thought about engaging in optional activities: Is this worth the effort or hassle in this weather? More troubling is the bitter cold which has a greater negative impact on breathing issues as he deals with post-polio factors.

For Dorothy Willis in Toronto, this has been the worst winter yet. “A terrible ice storm conked out power just before Christmas. We were without power for 36 hours, but so many had it worse. The storm wreaked havoc with chargers, chair, phone – all our reliable supports, not to mention heat and lights. Thank goodness I don’t depend on a ventilator and my automatic bed was in the down position when power stopped. Fortunately, there is a generator for the elevator in my building.

“I emerge from my cocoon only when I have to. And then the bitter cold that seeps through the windows, even though the thermostat is high, seeps through my body and stays and stays and stays.”

Pat Novak in northwest Ohio can walk short distances, and can walk to her car using a cane for balance in case of some ice. She has a scooter for long-term walking outside the house.

“I try to stay home most of the time. I am careful to always wear boots and warm socks when out. Of course, staying home presents its own set of problems mentally. I try not to work too much, but do fun things like reading good books, hobbies, playing the piano, etc. I dress decently (not slovenly), and put on make-up and jewelry. This seems to help me feel better. I also try to do my stretching exercises every day, take rest periods, and, most importantly, eat some chocolate. I keep in touch with my family and friends via e-mail and phone.”

Living in the country in northern Ontario, Elizabeth Lounsbury, when she’s out and around and has to move over to the shoulder for passing traffic, often gets stuck. Getting stuck in gravel is no treat. “Getting stuck in soft snow is a challenge, too, and one best avoided if possible. Having to make doctor or any appointments means I have to arrange a companion with me which can be difficult.

“I do find that my legs and feet get very cold so my solution is layering. I know others that have made a leg bag from an old fur coat or sleeping bag and pull that up over their legs. Since I can still stand, I would find this a hindrance. If I wasn’t standing I would think this to be a very helpful idea. I have used ski pants.”

Springfield, Illinois attorney Saul Morse finds himself more house bound this winter because of aging and PPS. Snow-blocked curbs make it tougher to park. The cold impairs his PPS-affected muscles and, coupled with the need to wear heavier clothes, degrades his functional ability.

Because he is working part time, can set his own hours and has access to technology that allows him to work easily from home, staying home isn’t a big problem. “Every day you have to decide what you have to do and what you can postpone or cancel. And you look ahead to next week in the same way,” he says. “Sometimes you start to go stir crazy and just want to get out and roll around, but in this weather spontaneity goes out the window.”

Sunny Roller in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says this is the hardest winter that she’s faced in Michigan. But even with the piles of snow and the bitter cold she says it’s easier to get around now than when she walked with braces and crutches. Then she used to wear a big parka with the pockets filled with road salt to scatter ahead to make it safer. “It’s frightening because you can fall and get injured.”

Now she uses a scooter and a van. Winter makes the world smaller, and the lack of sun can bring on the blues. “Still, it’s better on wheels than on feet.”

Tags for this article:
Assistive Devices
Cold Intolerance