NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – It’s been 65 years since the polio epidemic of 1952. Survivors are still managing what they call an orphaned and forgotten disease.
News 2 spoke with Nickie Lancaster, who has now become the go-to person for other survivors in their senior years. From her Hermitage home, she tracks hundreds of polio survivors.
“I’d say 90 percent of the people in our support group I’ve never met expect when they call, I know who they are. I know their voice. I know their history,” she explained.
Lancaster, a polio survivor herself, contracted the disease when she was 5 years old during the Nashville epidemic of the 1950s.
“My mother called the doctor in the middle of the night,” she said. “I had a roaring fever and he told her the thought it was polio and when I woke up and tried to get out of bed I fell on the floor.”
Polio is a flu-like virus that can spread to the brain and spinal cord causing paralysis. It was so contagious, even fear of catching the virus made people avoid human contact.
Anyone born before 1955 will remember images of children in leg braces and rows of patients in iron lung wards at children’s hospitals.
“I was a quadriplegic; I was totally paralyzed,” Lancaster said. “I heard the doctors tell my parents that I would not live and if I lived, I would never walk again.”
Lancaster defied the odds, and after 12 years of intense physical therapy, she no longer needs braces. She also went on to graduate nursing school and marry the love of her life, Alan Lancaster.
“They told me I would never have any children when I got ready to get married,” she recalled. “Boy, were they wrong there. We have five.”
Her five children were all born within six years and life was good until the polio came back.
“Many polio survivors like me shed our braces and went without them for years and then all of a sudden we find that we have new weaknesses,” she said.
In 1990, News 2 aired a story about Lancaster’s efforts to publicize a post-polio support group. With the help of Easter Seals, she formed Polio Heroes of Tennessee.
“We had our first meeting and 14 people showed up. From there it mushroomed,” she explained.
With polio eradicated, Lancaster discovered treatment facilities were no longer around.
“When the vaccine came out they stopped teaching about polio in medical schools,” Lancaster said, adding the doctors who had treated polio patients 30 years ago were either dead or retired.
“So our group had one goal – to make the polio survivor the expert in our disease so they can re-educate the doctor,” she explained.
Now, Lancaster sends out information to survivors on how to manager post-polio and where to find help.
“I can pull a card and the unfortunate thing is in the last 30 years, these are the people who have passed away and they died from aging,” she told News 2.
Lancaster uses her training to support knowledge of polio in the future. Each year she and her support group teach physical therapy students how to evaluate polio patients.
Polio Heroes of Tennessee has more than 700 members in the Volunteer State and southern Kentucky.