Editor’s Note: For every resident of Vashon, there is a story of life in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful to islander Richard Rogers for sharing his story with us on these pages, and his remarkable perspective on how three different pandemics, as well as the tragedy and terror of Sept. 11, 2001, have shaped his life.
By Richard Rogers
For The Beachcomber
The current COVID-19 pandemic has been compared to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I also include events of 1952 and 2001 in that discussion because the pandemics, quarantines and fear during those times are personal to me. My father and grandmother dealt with the Spanish Flu in 1918, I contracted polio in 1952, our nation faced the terror of 9/11, and everyone is challenged by COVID today.
As with the global quarantine, isolation and fear we are experiencing now, our parents and grandparents were quarantined while facing personal fear and loss during the Spanish Flu pandemic. My father told me that in 1918 at age 12, his mother, who was a neighborhood midwife, turned her attention to preparing deceased friends and neighbors for funerals. Because so many people around him had died, Dad feared that he would die too. As he shared his memories, I could see in his eyes that he was still deeply affected by the trauma he witnessed.
A few decades later, on Oct. 20, 1952, at 4 years of age, I experienced a headache, high fever and stiffness in my neck after attending a neighbor girl’s birthday party. Mom became alarmed when I could not lift my left arm to put on my jacket. I was diagnosed with polio and admitted to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital for treatment.
Similar to today’s headlines, at that time Ike and Adlai were campaigning for president, the Korean War was raging, and a hurricane was brewing in the Caribbean. The local newspaper announced: “New Vaccine Gives Promise Against Polio.” Meanwhile, my friends and their families stayed away, frightened that they might get polio from me.
After three months of daily physical therapy in the hospital with only two days home for Christmas, I was transferred to Georgia Warm Springs Foundation for further treatment. My mother later told me how happy she was that I was going to receive the excellent physical therapy available at Warm Springs where Franklin Delano Roosevelt swam in the mineral springs to ease his polio symptoms.
My parents assured me I was “one of the lucky ones” because I was alive — I could walk and was not in an iron lung as many others were. But what about the emotional damage? Being hospitalized, away from my family and friends for a total of six months, was a significant part of my life at that age. I turned 5 in the hospital and the only visits I had with family were waving to my parents and siblings through a window.
Another five decades later, a few days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I had an unsettling post-traumatic stress disorder episode. I was helping to prepare a candlelight vigil here on Vashon Island with mythologist Michael Meade and he noticed my extreme agitation. Michael, who has experience working with Vietnam veterans dealing with PTSD, asked “I know you aren’t a war vet but you told me you had polio as a child, has that been coming up for you?” I was astounded because yes, the memories and feelings triggered by the 9/11 events were causing me to have psychological paralysis that I now know was associated with my physical paralysis as a child.
Having extreme anxiety and almost no appetite, at first my doctor recommended anti-anxiety medication. I told him about the PTSD related to polio, asked if counseling might be an alternative to drugs and he agreed that psychological therapy could be useful. I began therapy for the first time in my life and discovered, as an impressionable child, I had internalized the fear, anxiety and grief that surrounded myself and my family when I contracted polio.
Then on 9/11, when the entire nation and much of the world was visited with an extreme level of fear, anxiety and grief, it all surfaced again for me. Nothing before that event came close to matching my childhood feelings of terror and sadness.
The therapy sessions helped me get in touch with and release feelings I had suppressed for 50 years, with a side benefit of losing 50 pounds — padding I no longer needed for emotional protection. A visit to Warm Springs in 2006, to the very room I slept in and the pool where I exercised, brought more grief to the surface and I was grateful to again release the suppressed pain.
Now another life-changing event is taking place that is on par with the 1918 Spanish Flu, polio in the 1950s and the global impact of 9/11. Again fear, isolation and anxiety are rampant in our world and me and many others are deeply affected by it. These past eight months, I have revisited many of the thoughts and feelings I did after 9/11.
So I do not take lightly the psychological impact this pandemic and our being quarantined is having on us and I believe it will surely reappear to some of us as PTSD, especially among children and victims of abuse.
I believe what will see us through this difficult time now is the same kindness my Granny Matt gave her dead neighbors and their families in 1918, the love given to me and my family in the form of hot meals, cards and toys in 1952, strangers looking into each other’s eyes with reassurance after 9/11, and our island neighbors playing music for us from our lawn and playing Bingo with us on FaceTime during Covid.
By sharing my story now, I hope to encourage others to use this time wisely by responding with grace and compassion to the stressful challenges we are facing and reach out to comfort and reassure children and other vulnerable members of our community.
News story tells of mother’s love
Among Richard Rogers’ most treasured keepsakes is a news story about his bout with polio, told from the perspective of his mother. The story, “Richard Just Lay There Quietly — Lad Winning Tough Fight Against Polio,” was written by journalist Carl Stauffer and published in the Tallahassee Democrat Sunday on Jan. 25, 1953. The article, which can be read in its entirety at Rogers-Graphics.com/Polio.pdf, is excerpted here.
“Mrs. Rogers had a heavy premonition … a weighted down feeling that could best be described as the echo of the alarm bells synthesized into an actual physical thing … present, pressing yet not fully identifiable.
When Richard got up he said his arm hurt.
So his arm hurt … little boys often had imagined hurts … he didn’t seem any worse otherwise … he said he wanted to go out and sit on the porch … see he’s feeling better …
The weight was still there, but Mrs. Rogers was fighting it. She got Richard’s jacket. She held it for him to put his arms into the sleeves. He reached over with his right hand, picked up his left arm and placed it in the sleeve.
This was it!
There were no small alarm bells now. Instead, there were whistles, sirens, buzzers, flashing lights … all the things a mother feels when her child is in danger.
Mrs. Rogers called the doctor, and he told her to bring Richard to him. She called her husband, and together they went to the doctor’s office.”
— Richard Rogers, a long-time Vashon resident, is a graphic designer, photographer and webmaster at Voice of Vashon.