My Turn: In honor of Robert Sawyer, please get vaccinated

  • Lisa White administers doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Charlemont Fairgrounds in June. White is a regional public health nurse with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. FOR THE RECORDER/ELLA ADAMS

Published: 8/5/2021 3:32:45 PM

After volunteering as a vaccinator at the John Zon Center this past spring and reflecting on that experience, I realized the missed opportunity to share the story of my grandfather and the importance of a single photo.

I had always known my grandfather as someone who needed leg braces and long crutches to get around; when I was a teen, he moved full-time into a wheelchair, later a hospital bed at home with a triangle hanging over it so he could lift himself, and then a Hoyer lift. I never gave it much thought despite hearing the oft-told story of Grampa contracting polio in New Hampshire as a 1-year old; the fear that he wouldn’t survive; and the stays in Boston for treatment at the Home for Little Wanderers, where he spent several weeks alone because his parents had lost everything in the Depression and could not afford to stay with him.

The photo is of Grampa as a 7-year-old, standing on a beach. What you can see is the big smile; what you can’t see is the brace under his long pants.

Without an available vaccine, my grandfather survived polio, but not un-scathed. It was the emergence of post-polio syndrome that eventually left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life; but oddly, with his sense of humor intact and even amplified.

I believe the reason for this is revealed in many photos since, like the family Thanksgiving photo or their 50th wedding anniversary with our family growing enough to fill the front yard with grandchildren and then great-grandchildren. What is strikingly missing from those photos is more of us in wheelchairs, like him.

If that doesn’t illustrate the importance of vaccines, I don’t know what does!

I caught myself telling jokes as I grew more comfortable at the Zon Center and wish I had realized what was really happening. Had a vaccine for polio been available, my grandfather would have taken it; when it wasn’t, he chose laughter and carried it, literally, in his pocket … a small notepad of punchlines to his favorite jokes ( the most coveted heirloom when he passed.)

Will post-COVID syndrome be a thing down the road? Probably. But just a shot or two can buy us all safety, hope, and time, as we wait for science to catch up, as it always does.

In honor of Robert Sawyer, I encourage all, who haven’t already, to please get vaccinated. Smiles are much less contagious behind masks. So here goes: Knock, knock! Who’s there? A COVID vaccine. . . . (How this joke ends is up to you.)

Annie Clarke lives in Greenfield.

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