They are the last generation of Americans who contracted polio as children, and after fighting to live normal lives, they have found themselves stalked as senior citizens by a condition many doctors dont recognize.
Post-polio syndrome, on average, strikes 30 to 35 years after their initial polio diagnosis, but it can strike 50, 60, even 70 years afterward.
Jeanne Jordan, a 92-year-old who lives in Tacoma, contracted polio at age 4. She has outlived her husband and one of their three children, has seven grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
All of us with this condition paid our dues early in life, Jordan said. Now weve had to change our lifestyles again. For most of my life, I used a cane only when I walked outside. Now, I cant walk at all. I use a scooter, and I have trouble getting from the scooter into bed.
I always walked with a limp, but I could do everything I wanted but dance. I dance in my dreams, and let me tell you I dance well.
That kind of humor could be one of the criteria for membership in the Tacoma/Pierce County Post-Polio Support Group, which meets monthly near Tacoma Community College.
Were dinosaurs, a dying breed, said Ursula Schmidt, 70, of Olympia. Polio now is a third-world country disease, and hopefully that will end, too. But because there have been so few cases in this country over the past 50 years, most doctors know nothing about this syndrome.
Even those who do can be fooled, because post-polio syndrome symptoms can mirror other conditions. There is no test for it, no known cause, no cure. Strong muscles weaken and there is no corrective therapy.
Post-polio syndrome is progressive.
Its hard to pinpoint when it begins, because you wonder if the exhaustion is normal aging, Schmidt said. I noticed weakness in areas of my body unaffected by polio: my arm, shoulders, back.
It has changed my life. Im slower, more boring. I still drive, but cant go by myself I cant get my wheelchair out like I used to. It hits you hard when you realize you cant do this or that any more.
Dawn Doxey, 60, was the youngest person at the groups February meeting, and she had spent a decade trying to find out what was happening to her. A Tacoma woman with boundless energy, she survived polio at age 2, though she needed surgeries on a leg and ankle.
She was 3 when Dr. Jonas Salks vaccine was introduced in 1955, eventually allowing most Americans to forget about polio but not the survivors.
I was fine up until 2002, then after working at (the) airport five years, walking and running, something changed, she said. I started having weakness in my left leg at work, then twisted my knee mowing the lawn.
And my left leg was my good leg.
Every doctor I went to told me I had something different, and my dad finally asked me, Are you sure its not post-polio syndrome?
Doxey had three children in a first marriage, and once she and second husband Brent had them raised and out of the house, the couple adopted three more, now aged 21, 19 and 16.
I just cant do what I used to do. I cant walk the neighborhood and meet the neighbors, Doxey said. I cant go to the mall with my daughter and shop for school clothes I wear down too quickly and my legs go out.
Doxey does what everyone in the group does. She copes. She knits. She sews. A few weeks ago, she took up whittling.
The chairwoman of the group, Marlys Tron, is 67 and a retired Enumclaw school teacher. A polio victim at seven, she had three surgeries as a child and walked with a pronounced limp her entire life.
Polio patients are Type A personalities they want to be like everyone else. We want to excel, Tron said. I couldnt run a step, but I spent 10 years coaching the Enumclaw High School girls track team. I still do a little weight-lifting.
Sandy Manley, 71, was 11 when she got polio and was made the March of Dimes poster child for March Air Force Base.
Doctors told me I would never have a normal life, but it went in one ear and out the other, the Tacoma woman said. I married, had two children and had what I consider a normal life until 1996, when I started losing strength in both legs.
I miss my independence, but one thing about our group, we dont make excuses. This syndrome may slow me down, but it wont keep me down.
Jeanne Jordan, the oldest member of the group at 92, is among its more inspiring members.
You cant give up hope, she said. There are so many things in the world worse than polio.
Larry LaRue: (253) 597-8638
Tacoma - Post-Polio Support Group meetings
Where: TACID headquarters, 6315 S. 19th St., Tacoma
When: First Monday of each month, 1-3 p.m.
Contact: Marlys Tron, chairwoman, 253 863-9556