Heel to Toe for Polio

October 2, 2010

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Linda Epperson hadn't really thought about polio in decades. She had it as a child. But she recovered. It was in her past. So when she was told she had post-polio syndrome, she couldn't accept it.

The Hilton Head Island resident didn't think of polio when she started suffering from exhaustion about 20 years ago. She was in her 40s and figured she was too busy raising two sons and being involved in church and the community. But the situation became complicated. Next came the muscle pain. And then she collapsed.

She went to a doctor who told her the diagnosis.

She didn't believe it. So she went to another doctor. And another, and another; she even visited a specialist in Washington, D.C. They all told her the same thing. The effects of her childhood polio had weakened her body. She was being advised to practice the "conserve and preserve" philosophy. She needed to slow the pace of her life.

"That was just not in my personality," she said. "I just didn't believe it. I had come so far. To accept this was very difficult."

LIFE GOES ON

Two decades later, she still lives with post-polio syndrome.

The syndrome affects between a quarter and half of polio sufferers who recover from the initial round of the disease, according to the National Institute of Health. The polio virus attacks the neurons that govern muscle movement, often leading to paralysis. People can recover from polio. But in the process, they sometimes overtax the neurons that were making up for the ones damaged by the disease. As survivors get older, these neurons can break down rapidly, leading to a variety of symptoms from fatigue to muscle atrophy.

For Epperson, post-polio syndrome means she tires easily. She has limited use of her legs and mainly uses a motorized scooter to get around the house.

She's still active -- as active as her body allows. She has a van with hydraulics that can lift her and her scooter. The gas and brake pedals are rigged so she can drive with her hands.

She has a limited workout routine to keep her fit yet not tire her. She does stretching exercises in the morning. She walks in the in-ground pool at her house.

She goes to a Bible study on Thursdays. Her sons come over Sundays for a family dinner with her and her husband, Patrick, who runs an air conditioning company. She occasionally goes out to eat, perhaps with a friend for lunch or with her husband for dinner. But she can only do so much. She figures that she only has a certain amount of time a day that she can be active. If she has too many plans, something has to be cut.

"When I do get out and about, I appreciate it so much more," she said. "It's what makes life worth living."


PUTTING UP A FIGHT

When she was diagnosed, Epperson thought she could fight it. And she did at first. She fought it by not believing. But the toll was too much on her body. Doctors finally convinced her of the reality. She needed to slow down.

She can't be blamed for initially thinking she could fight it. She already had recovered once from the disease.

She was 5 years old when she was diagnosed in Savannah. This was September 1952, before the introduction of a vaccine that has since essentially made polio nonexistent in the United States. She still remembers the day. She wasn't feeling well. She told her mother, who told her to lay down. She turned to go and almost immediately collapsed.

She was basically paralyzed from the neck down. Another polio outbreak had happened that fall, so a storage room had been cleaned out at Candler Hospital to house polio victims. Bars stretched over the windows, giving it a less-than-hospitable feel.

When she returned home, her toys had to be burned for fear of contamination. She kept a little rubber doll that was boiled to disinfect it.

At fist, the doctors told her she'd never be able to move. But she did. Then they said she'd never walk without leg braces. But she did.

"Everything they said I couldn't do, I did," she said.

Even later in life. A year into her marriage, her mother told her that doctors said she'd never have children. But, eight years later, she gave birth to a son, Patrick. About three years later, Chris was born.

SUPPORTING OTHERS

The way she fights her disease now is through the Coastal Empire Polio Survivors organization. The group will host Heel to Toe for Polio -- a fundraising walk held in conjunction with five local Rotary clubs -- on Saturday at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head. Rotary International has made the eradication of polio worldwide its goal.

Epperson thinks of those who aren't as lucky as her, the children who might contract polio even though all it would take to stop it is a vaccine. She thinks of the post-polio syndrome sufferers who don't have the support she's received.

"Luckily, I have my husband," she said. "But not everybody has somebody like that."

She plans to walk in Heel to Toe for Polio, like she did last year.

She might not be able to escape the lasting effects of her bout with polio, but she'll do what she can to make sure no one will have to fight the disease again.


Heel to Toe for Polio will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Coligny Beach Park on Hilton Head Island. Registration begins at 9 a.m.

Team captain and walker envelopes can be picked up at the Bank of North Carolina locations in The Village at Wexford and Pineland Station on Hilton Head. Packets are available in Bluffton at Atlantic Community Bank in Sheridan Park.

Five Hilton Head Rotary clubs have organized the walk to support Rotary International's goal of eradicating polio and to support the Coastal Empire Polio Survivors.

Details: 843-837-1230, www.coastalempirepoliosurvivors.org