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'The Autumn Ghost' tells of innovation that saved lives during polio epidemic

An iron lung at Boston Children’s Hospital. (Courtesy of March of Dimes Archives)
An iron lung at Boston Children’s Hospital. (Courtesy of March of Dimes Archives)

Dr. Hannah Wunsch, a critical care physician, tells the story of how the battle against the polio epidemic in the 1950s sparked a revolution in medical care. It led to the invention of the ventilator, which was a medical breakthrough, first used to treat polio patients instead of the iron lung.

Wunsch joins Here & Now‘s Scott Tong to discuss her new book, “The Autumn Ghost:How the Battle Against a Polio Epidemic Revolutionized Modern Medical Care.” The book looks at the innovation during the polio epidemic and how it led to critical care and lifesaving care in hospitals.

Book excerpt: ‘The Autumn Ghost: How the Battle Against a Polio Epidemic Revolutionized Modern Medical Care’

By Hannah Wunsch

Vivi Ebert was just twelve years old. She was going to die. Near the end of August, Vivi came home from school saying she had a head-ache and went to bed. The next day she complained that she couldn’t move her arms and legs well. On Tuesday, August 26, she had a fever, headache, stiff neck, and some paralysis: the telltale signs of polio. Her mother called an ambulance and Vivi was brought to the hospital; she already had weakness in one arm, but much more concerning, she also had difficulty breathing. Since early July, the hospital had admitted many patients just like Vivi, and almost all of them had died. As her symptoms worsened, the doctors and nurses knew she likely had only a few more hours, or days at most, to live.

The polio epidemic that year in Copenhagen had begun with a trickle of cases in July. By the end of the summer the disease was roaring through Denmark’s capital and outlying regions. It was far worse than in previous years, with more cases of paralysis and difficulty breathing than anyone had ever seen. There were daily news bulletins on the radio announcing the latest areas with outbreaks.

Ambulances kept pulling up at the hospital, hour after hour, day after day. By late August, there were fifty admissions a day, all with severe polio. The doctors and nurses would have focused on one key question: Could the patient take a breath? For someone who was struggling to breathe, there was little that could be done except to try to keep them comfortable.

Henry Cai Alexander Lassen, the chief of the Blegdam, the only infectious disease hospital in the city, was a physician and an expert on polio. He had cared for hundreds of patients with the illness. But this strain of the virus seemed to be causing more cases than usual, and was viciously deadly. By the time Vivi showed up, he and his team had already lost dozens of patients, many of them infants and children. Vivi was about to be next.

The previous decades had been full of major medical advances; antibiotics allowed for treatment of bacterial infections, the discovery of insulin meant that a diagnosis of diabetes was no longer a death sentence, and X-rays provided a way to “see” inside the body. New vaccines had even been developed for infectious diseases such as diphtheria and influenza. But in 1952 there was still little anyone could offer as treatment for patients with polio, and there was also no vaccine for prevention. Modern medicine was failing and polio was winning. That was about to change.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book “The Autumn Ghost: How the Battle Against a Polio Epidemic Revolutionized Modern Medical Care,” written by Hannah Wunsch and published by Greystone Books in May 2023.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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