Polio is her friend

Arlene Sanborn
Arlene Sanborn

Editor’s note: Oct. 24 is World Polio Day and recognizes Rotary International’s 28-year mission to eradicate the crippling childhood disease. In light of World Polio Day, the Union-Eagle takes a look at a Princeton resident who contracted the disease as a 6-year-old in 1946. Writer Jeff Hage is the president of the Princeton Rotary Club.


When Arlene Sanborn dreams, she might find herself in a boat fishing.

“But my dreams don’t involve walking,” the 72-year-old Princeton woman said.Print

That’s because, at age 6, Sanborn contracted polio. As a result, she hasn’t walked in more than 50 years.

But Sandorn isn’t mad at polio for taking away her ability to walk.

As a matter of fact, she felt she needed to embrace the disease to survive.

“I had to make it my friend,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn’s life changed forever 10 days before her sixth birthday.

The young girl wasn’t feeling well. It was as if she had the flu.

She suffered from severe stiffness in her back and had a fever and aches. She had nausea and was vomiting.

Back in those days, the doctor made house calls. The Sanborn’s family doctor made a stop by the farmhouse and examined the nearly 6-year-old girl.

Sanborn’s parents were directed to take their daughter to University Hospital in Minneapolis, where she was diagnosed with polio.

That was 1946.

“Polio was a big epidemic then,” Sanborn said.

In fact, it was one of the most dreaded childhood diseases that either crippled or caused paralysis in hundreds of thousands of children across the globe. Polio vaccines developed in the 1950s have reduced the global number of polio cases from many hundreds of thousands each year to under a thousand today.

Through vaccination efforts led by Rotary International, the eradication of polio is expected to be completed eradicated by the end of 2014. Today, polio is found in just four countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Somalia. The Princeton Rotary Club is joined by 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide who make annual contributions to Rotary’s Polio Plus program that funds the eradication efforts.

In the 1940s, polio was such an epidemic that hospitals could barely house all the children who were suffering from the disease. After two days at University Hospital, Sanborn was transferred to the University Farm, where Sanborn said the animals were removed to make way for the children with polio.

Two weeks later, Sanborn was transferred to Gillette Hospital in St. Paul, where she spent the next 14 months of her life.

Sanborn was 7 years old and on crutches when she came home in October 1947.

But two weeks later, she fell and broke a bone. It was back to Gillette Hospital to start the healing process all over again.

It soon became clear that Sanborn’s  bout with polio would not be reversed. She was admitted to Gillette Hospital 10 times from 1946 to 1961. She began by having hot packs applied to her muscles  with the hope of loosening her muscles. But Sanborn remained stiff and she was weakening. The polio was moving through her spinal chord and affecting the neurons in her brain that told her muscles how to work, Sanborn said.

It wasn’t long before the hot packs were being replaced by grueling physical therapy aimed at restoring her ability to walk on her own.

“It was a very scary thing,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn then developed scoliosis, which caused further weakness in her back. She had surgeries when she was 15 and again when she was 20.

At age 21, Sanborn made the transition from child to adult. Gillette Hospital was a children’s hospital, so her 21st birthday brought about her end at that facility.

She was now on her own and accepting of the fact that she would probably never walk again.

Sanborn got an apartment in St. Paul and took a job working for the state of Minnesota where she worked in the Social Security disability department processing applications. She also did some clerical work where she wrote up determinations of benefits.

In the early 1960s she learned to drive and purchased a vehicle with hand controls. That allowed Sanborn to get an apartment and work at a medical facility in Anoka where, for 10 years, she processed insurance forms.

She then moved on to a job with Sherburne County where she did payroll for the county until her retirement in 2000. She was living with her mother on the farm in rural Princeton until her mother passed away in the late 1990s. Now 72, Sanborn lives in her own townhouse in the city of Princeton.

It’s been 50 years since polio robbed Sanborn of her ability to walk.

But Sanborn considers herself a very independent woman.

Each day in her motorized wheelchair, Sanborn makes her way up a ramp into her white van. There is no front seat in the van. Instead, Sanborn’s wheelchair latches into place behind the steering wheel, allowing her to make her way downtown to the K-Bob Cafe.

“Going to the K-Bob is my way of getting out in the world, and I need that,” Sanborn said.

She is also very active volunteering for her church.

“I’ve taken a few vacations and just monkey around,” she said.

Sanborn has not allowed herself to be defined by her polio.

“I was taught not to let it stop you,” she said.

“I have done in life what I’ve wanted to … and I’m happy with that,” Sanborn said.