The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

April 28, 2014

Living with polio

Woman lauds March of Dimes, cites independence

SHENANGO VALLEY — Looking back at the last 60 years of living with polio, Phyllis Lowrey focuses little on the paralysis that changed her life; instead, she has tried to campaign and support the organization she says saved her family from financial ruin from her medical bills.

Founded 75 years ago, at the height of the polio outbreak, the March of Dimes organization was committed to helping find a vaccine and assisting those already afflicted with the disease that often leads to devastating paralysis, including, at that time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lowrey, who at age 15 was the youngest of three girls, and “an ardent rollerskater” had no idea what was happening to her one summer when she quickly began to lose the use of her arms and legs.

She had been swimming at a family reunion and within days, her legs hurt her day and night. A week later, she was dragging her left leg, she said. Shortly, she couldn’t stand at all.

“I had no idea what polio was. Even after they told me what I had, I didn’t know,” she said. Mercer County suffered a polio outbreak in 1953 that affected 75 people in two months.

“There was a whole ward of us up at what was then Buhl Hospital. About four or five died,” the Sharon woman said.

Doctors at that time told Lowrey she likely ingested a contaminated fly while swimming. “I really don’t know how I got it. I guess I thought that was possible,” she said.

Research has since shown that polio is contracted through contact with body secretions and, more commonly, found in infected feces. The National Institute of Public Health suggested polio was on the rise in the 1940s and 1950s as better sanitation systems were developed. Very young children exposed to contamination early on developed an immunity, but older children who were never exposed never developed an immunity, according to the website.

Lowrey spent 285 days in the  hospital, much of it in isolation, and was told she likely wouldn’t live past age 30 and wouldn’t have children.

The medical bills were more than $10,000. Her father was raising a family on $70 a week he earned working in receiving at the former Westinghouse plant. “It was tough, let me tell you. And he missed a lot of work taking care of me,” she said.

“But the March of Dimes stepped up. And boy did they. My parents were talking about selling the house; they didn’t know what to do. The March of Dimes paid all of it but $1,000. It was a godsend,” she said.

She met Mike Lowrey when she was 24. “And I was sitting in a car and I told him “‘I can’t walk’” and he said ‘so what?’ He just accepted it like it was nothing,” she said.

Now widowed at age 75, with two “children sent straight from heaven,” grandchildren and great-grandchilden, she isn’t able to go out and support the organization as she once did, though she still does financially when she can.

She has been in a wheelchair since she was 15. “But there’s really not anything I can’t do. I’m very independent.”

“But I wanted to get this story out about the March of Dimes and the good they do. I know they saved my family,” she said.

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