Woman 1St In Line For Polio Vaccine Embraces Covid-19 Shot

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Nora Unruh felt a sense of relief when she was vaccinated for COVID-19.

But it didn’t bring back memories about getting her polio shot at the first vaccine clinic in Bismarck six decades ago.

“That’s probably a good thing,” the 72-year-old Basin Electric retiree and grandmother of two said, laughing.

The front page of The Bismarck Tribune from June 9, 1955, recounts her shot that day at the World War Memorial Building:

“Six-year-old Nora Jeanne Bohrer ... was a somewhat reluctant first youngster through the line, but she soon wiped her tears away.” (“Oh, for cute,” she said after hearing the story.)

Polio was a dreaded disease of its time. The virus could paralyze and even kill people, children especially. North Dakota logged nearly 2,000 polio cases from 1946-55; 95 people died, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

Crutches, leg braces and intimidating iron lungs were images of polio. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the most famous person afflicted with the disease.

A team led by Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine after decades of fundraising and research. More than 1,600 second-graders in Burleigh, Cass and Morton counties were vaccinated in nationwide field trials in 1954.

Salk’s polio vaccine launched in 1955. A few years later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine taken with sugar. Today, polio is all but eradicated from the Earth.

Unruh, who still lives in Bismarck with her husband of 55 years, DuWayne, received her second Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination last month.

She didn’t cry this time.

During the polio years, she remembers seeing on television “big, metal, tank-looking things people were in” -- the so-called “iron lung” breathing apparatus. She also went to school with children who contracted polio before the vaccines came out.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Unruh said, she’s “followed the rules of what they said to do,” wearing a face mask, washing her hands and keeping with only her immediate family.

“That’s been probably one of the hardest parts, is when you do have family far away and you can’t get together with them,” she said. Recently she visited with family she hadn’t seen in over a year.

The Unruhs have traveled to 50 countries, including Australia, Russia and Cuba, but Nora said she is “not sure I want to sit close to a lot of people on an airplane yet.”

Experiencing the pandemic as a grandmother who home-schooled her 11-year-old grandson, she sees parallels with the polio years.

“I’ve had similar fears, because both are diseases,” she said. “And we went through a time with polio where there wasn’t a real good cure until the vaccine came out, and now with the pandemic, we’ve sort of followed the same pattern. There was nothing until this vaccine came out.”

Under the headline “Tears Dry Quickly After Polio Shots,” the Tribune reported that children in line at Bismarck’s first polio vaccine clinic “apprehensively stole peeks as the shot was being given at the head of the line. Then they smilingly presented their bare arms to the doctors and turned their heads away for their shot.”

The Tribune reported 981 children ages 6 to 9 in Bismarck and Burleigh County getting Salk polio shots that day. The city health officer called the turnout a “fair response.”

Unruh calls herself “a firm believer in getting vaccinated.”

“I never got polio. I never got the measles,” Unruh said. “All those childhood diseases that we were vaccinated for, I was very fortunate that I didn’t get those, and I feel right now we’re so fortunate that they have these vaccines and got them this quick.”