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Robert A. Mills

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A SHOT IN THE DARK
5/6/2010 4:42:33 AM
My wife, as a child, was one of Dr. Jonas Salk’s guinea pigs when he was developing his polio vaccine. I don’t know how much her parents received for allowing her participation in these experiments, but I do know both she and her older sister were somehow put through college. Probably with funds saved up by Mom and Pop Rosack. Maybe. Or . . . who knows?

During the ‘30s and ‘40s I was the perfect age for infantile paralysis, and while all my friends and playmates were dropping like Lourdes losers, I sweated out each summer expecting an invitation to one of Sister Kenny’s iron lungs. Although I frolicked in the Niagara River, palled around with 6th and 7th graders, frequently hid in movie theaters, had a paper route and went camping with Boy Scout Troop 15, the fickle finger of viral fate never punctured my fair skin. Larry, Wendell, Frankie and Geraldine fell victim and disappeared while I went through each traumatic season unscathed.

There were in those years a number of household names that succumbed to polio, and most, thank God, did not sustain permanent disabilities, though some such as Itzhak Perlman still walk on crutches; the maestro usually plays the violin sitting down. President Franklin Roosevelt was badly afflicted and was perhaps the most well-known, but show business personalities such as Lionel Barrymore, Alan Alda, Mia Farrow, Francis Ford Coppola, Donald Sutherland, Joni Mitchell and Dinah Shore, Neil Young and David Sanborn all fell victim to the disease, as did the late writer Arthur C. Clarke, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Congressman James Scheuer.

In 1956 Dr. Jonas Salk received the Lasker Award for scientific achievement, although he was not similarly honored by Sweden’s Nobel Assembly (I doubt if he truly cared or gave it a passing thought; the Lasker Awards have long been considered “America’s Nobels” and Salk, a very private man, was written about in the New York Times as having “very little perceptible interest in the things that interest most people—such as making money," to which the good doctor remarked that making money belongs "in the category of mink coats and Cadillacs—unnecessary.")

Perhaps my wife’s courage is why I agreed to be inoculated with a flu vaccine the local university touted as a “breakthrough” against the ravages of influenza. A couple of us from television dutifully showed up at the appointed time and rolled up our sleeves.

“Ouch!” I screamed. “I didn’t know you were gonna use an ice pick!”

The sawbones, a medical aficionado with the improbable name of Eurias Prickle, laughed as only physicians can, and said, “If you feel squeamish, perhaps you should lie down.”

I didn’t have to. I had collapsed—fainted, actually—before I had a chance to re-button my cuff. They tell me I was unconscious in the ambulance all the way from the Twelve Corners to Strong Memorial Hospital, where they revived me with cotton swabs soaked in
(NH4)2CO3·H2O (smelling salts,) while various people in gowns, stethoscopes and head-mirrors stood around me with quizzical expressions of bafflement and concern.

“Seems he had a reaction,” said one of them. “Mighta been a bad batch,” suggested another. “Don’t think so,” asserted an older one. “May already had the flu. I don’t mean like last week. Maybe right now, in his blood stream.” They all nodded. “We should keep him overnight . . . just in case.”

At about 8 PM a huge black fellow came into my ER cubicle carrying a tin basin and a bar of Lifebouy. “You gonna give me something to eat?” I asked him, thinking the soap was a Twinkie. “No. sir. I gonna give you a sponge bath.” The moment he touched me I told him the water was too cold. “I heat it up some,” he said, and when he was out of sight, I bounded from the bed and located my clothes that had been rolled into a ball beneath the night table at my side.

In less than three-quarters of an hour, I was at the Big 25, a tavern near the TV studio, sipping Jenny Cream Ale and waiting to be served a fabulous cheeseburger dripping with all the trimmings.

In those days, if I missed a TV show I would be docked the “talent fee” and it would go into my replacement’s pocket, no matter the reason for my absence. I had already been AWOL for the 6 PM Weather; to remain among the missing for the 11 PM would cost me 18% of my weekly income. No way! Leprosy would not keep me off the air!

That was, as I recall, in 1958 or 9. Before long, seniority, like flu shots, became a way of life, so to speak. By 1960 or so, my star in the local TV galaxy was affirmed, and I became addicted to flu shots. In fact, I am still a devotee of all available inoculations—from tetanus to measles, keeping assiduous records so that I will not overlook prevention of even the most minor affliction. Annually, I present myself for more shots than there are known maladies.

Do they work? Are they worth it? You tell me. I have had colds (when living up North) but never severe flu (swine, bird or whatever.) Stiff muscles but never poliomyelitis. Rusty nails, but no tetanus. Pityriasis rosea—but never measles. Pneumonia is for old people who forget when, if ever, they got a P-shot. Etc.

Now, looking forward to becoming vigesimal four times over, I am always at the ready for happy needles to keep me immune from the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Thanks to Medicare, my primary sawbones has even introduced me to a vaccination against shingles—and it certainly works! The only shingles I’ve noticed since 2008 are the ones on my roof.

So, what’s next? I’m scheduled for my annual physical in July, and I can’t wait to see what serum he’s got for me this year. Hopefully, it will be a shot for arthritis, pinched nerves or lower back pain. I’m sure he will come up with a mighty innovation—especially if he studied the Reader’s Digests I sent him for Christmas.

Oh, by the way—Thursday, May 6, is Dr. Jonas Salk Day, so decreed by President Ronald Reagan. How do you plan to celebrate? Perhaps a shot or two?


Copyright©2010 by Robert A. Mills


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