Frank Thurber isn't bitter about the fact that he contracted polio six months before the disease's vaccination became available.
“You handle it as it comes, and you deal with life the way the good Lord intended you to do it – with strength and vigor,” said Thurber, 76.
It was 1954, and Thurber, who is 6-foot-7, was 19 and had a full scholarship to play basketball at Oklahoma City University.
Even though the United States is polio free, Thurber still suffers from the effects of polio, for he is one of the many people who have what's known as post-polio syndrome.
Polio, or poliomyelitis, is an infectious viral disease that can strike at any age and affects a person's nervous system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the late 1940s to the early 1950s, in the United States alone, polio crippled about 35,000 people each year, making it one of the most feared diseases of the 20th century, according to the CDC.
By 1979, the country became polio free. Since the development of polio vaccines, few people living in the Western hemisphere have contracted polio. Children in the U.S. are routinely vaccinated against polio.
But an end to the epidemic in the U.S. didn't mean the people who contracted polio were free of the disease, though.
Post-polio syndrome is a complication that develops in some patients, usually 30 or more years after they are first infected, according to the CDC. Muscles that were already weak may get weaker. Weakness may also develop in muscles that were not affected before.
People with post-polio syndrome can attend a support group that meets in Oklahoma City. The group meets on the fourth Saturday of every month from March through October. The meetings are at 11:30 in the private room at Johnnie's Charcoal Broiler at 2652 W. Britton Road in Oklahoma City.
Yvonne Leard, who helps organize the meetings, said the group shares resources about the disease and also information about doctors and physical therapists in the area.
One of the problems that post-polio patients face is finding a doctor who understands the disease.
“In this group of people, they all understand what's going on with each other whereas a lot of people who have never had polio don't understand what's going on with us,” Leard said. “They say, ‘If you exercise you will get your strength back.' That's not the case – the more we do that, the more we lose.”
Thurber, who attends the meetings, walked for 30 years without any problems after his polio diagnosis.
But then his muscles started to weaken, and he is now in a wheelchair.
Thurber has three sons, four grandchildren and five great grandchildren, all of whom have had the polio vaccine. Everyone should be vaccinated because the symptoms of polio are much worse than the risks of the vaccination, Thurber said.
“It would just be criminal not to vaccinate your child in America,” he said.
When the polio vaccination came out, people around the world celebrated.
“I kept thinking, ‘The generations that aren't going to have to mess with this stuff – isn't that wonderful? The mothers and fathers that are not going to see their children go through this.'”
When Thurber contracted polio, he spent four and a-half months in the hospital, in and out of an iron lung. Because of his height, the hospital had to get an iron lung that Thurber could fully fit in. For the first few weeks, he bent his knees to fit inside.
The iron lung would help pull a patient's chest muscles outward, which would help the patient's ability to breath, Thurber said. It wasn't painful but actually comfortable.
“When I see an old report on polio, and I see the iron lung, I have a warm feeling for it because it saved my life, as it did millions of others,” Thurber said.