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Boone Woman Recalls Life on the Frontlines of Polio Epidemic

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Nystrom graduated from Boone High School in 1946 and went straight to nursing school at Creighton University in Omaha. She was on the frontlines in the middle of the polio epidemic with no vaccine.

BOONE, Iowa — Life under the pandemic is unprecedented. “It is hard to compare because we never expected anything this vicious,” said Charlene Nystrom, who lives in Boone. For Nystrom, it’s history repeating. “That was in the 1940s when I was helping as a student. Now, here we are in 2020 and it is something else that is worse. A lot worse,” said Nystrom.

Nystrom graduated from Boone High School in 1946 and went straight to nursing school at Creighton University in Omaha. She was on the frontlines in the middle of the polio epidemic with no vaccine. “It was pretty scary to be there,” Nystrom said.

Ventilators are in high demand today with hospitals reaching capacity. Nystrom says medical officials shared a similar frustration with the lack of iron lungs helping patients with polio who could no longer breath on their own. “They would bring children in the evening and they thought they had Bulbar polio and sometimes they wouldn’t last until morning. It affected their lungs, it paralyzed their lungs and then they passed away,” Nystrom recalled.

Social distancing forced families apart. State Library of Iowa photos show parents climbing ladders at Blank Hospital in Des Moines just to speak to their polio-stricken children through a window. Nystrom said, “There were limited visits. Maybe an hour or so a day. They had to be gowned up and relatively safe.”

Graduating in 1949, Nystrom moved back to Iowa to work at the Boone County Hospital. The worst of the polio outbreak occurred in 1952. Of the nearly 58,000 U.S. cases, there were more than 3,500 cases in Iowa. More than 3,000 Americans died and over 2,000 had mild to disabling paralysis. At the time, it was the worst epidemic in American history.

According to the State Library of Iowa, in 1954, 13,000 children in Woodbury, Linn and Scott counties were the first in Iowa to take part in the polio vaccine trials. While the vaccine went public a year later, Nystrom says just like today health officials faced skepticism surrounding the medical breakthrough. “There were still parents that didn’t want to have their child have it and that was another thing we had to face,” said Nystrom.

Long since retired, the toll the epidemic took on her and her medical colleagues over seven decades ago still feels fresh. Fighting back tears, Nystrom said, “That’s always your goal as a nurse to help people.”

Just like her frontline battle against polio, Nystrom hopes Iowans thank their health care workers by getting vaccinated. Nystrom said, “I urge them to be sure and get a vaccine. Don’t hesitate. I would hate to see anybody lose their lives over it.”