My father’s journey with polio
Bob Touro, former ICU nurse, with Robert Collins.
My father, Robert Collins, contracted polio in 1955 during an epidemic that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Dad was a cable splicer for the telephone company, climbing telephone poles to connect and repair wires. During a work assignment on Nantucket, he became very ill with respiratory symptoms that worsened quickly. He was transported to Cape Cod Hospital for treatment but he needed intensive specialized care that was only available at John C. Haynes Memorial Hospital in Brighton, an infectious disease hospital that cared for polio patients. He almost died on the way.
Polio is a highly infectious virus that invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis that is often permanent. Prior to the development of a vaccine in 1952, many people died from the infection or suffered the effects of it for the rest of their lives.
My father’s chest muscles were paralyzed as a result of the infection and he couldn’t breathe. His treatment was an iron lung, a cylindrical tube that housed his entire body up to his neck. The tank was controlled by vacuum pumps using negative air pressure on his chest to pull air into the lungs through his nose and mouth.
Lying on his back, it was next to impossible to eat and speak during inhalation. He had to learn to do these two things when the machine was helping him to exhale passively.
Dad eventually weaned himself from the iron lung. It was a slow process and a monumental accomplishment. Even though he was able to breathe on his own, he was paralyzed from the waist down and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Not one to be deterred, he learned to drive again with hand controls in his car and went back to work full-time for the telephone company at a desk job.
As he grew older and weaker, his body had less tolerance for any infections. He became very ill in 1990 and went into respiratory distress and was transported to Cape Cod Hospital. Dr. Chester Mohr, a pulmonary specialist at Cape Cod Hospital, evaluated my father in the ER. Dr. Mohr gave my dad two options for survival: a tracheotomy, which he would have the rest of his life, or the iron lung, with the potential to wean himself off of it. No guarantee either way, but it was up to my dad.
Dad chose the iron lung, not knowing if he would ever come out of it. He was transferred to the intensive care unit where he spent three weeks until he could start the weaning process. He recuperated on a medical floor and was discharged home, breathing on his own once again.
As part of his training, Dr. Mohr had done a fellowship in neuromuscular diseases and chronic respiratory failure at Tufts New England Medical Center. When he started at Cape Cod Hospital in 1988, there was an iron lung stored in a warehouse that had been donated in the 1950’s by Otis Air Force Base (now Joint Base Cape Cod). Dr. Mohr had it refurbished and over the next 10 years, used it for patients with post-poliomyelitis syndrome, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis.
Thankfully, he no longer needs to use the iron lung to treat patients with severely compromised respiratory illnesses.
“There’s a new way to help these patients called Bi-pap (biphasic positive airway pressure machine) which is a mask hooked up to a ventilator using positive pressure to assist with breathing,” Dr. Mohr said.
With bi-pap, the patient’s breathing is less restricted, because they can control inhalation and exhalation on their own. They are not as physically limited as they would be in an iron lung.
Thanks to Dr. Mohr and the staff at Cape Cod Hospital, my father lived another 10 years until the age of 78. He was always grateful for the care he received at the hospital from outpatient physical therapy when he was still recuperating from polio through his hospitalizations over the past few years.