84-year-old North Dakotan recalls similarities between 1949 polio epidemic and 2019 coronavirus pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on almost everybody in one way or another — but for a certain generation of people, it’s not the first time a disease has turned life on its head.

“Never in my wildest imagination did I ever dream that we would be doing something like this,” Betty Svihovec said.

Svihovec, 84, has lived through a lot of history in her life. Born in Hettinger, North Dakota, in 1936, she and four siblings worked on the family farm. She says things were a lot different then: no medicine or access to immediate healthcare.

“We, of that generation, were the kids that everything…We had the measles, and the chickenpox, and the bumps, and whooping cough. And our parents, of course, were the primary healthcare givers in those days,” said Svihovec.

Having gone through the 1918 influenza pandemic themselves, she says her parents knew a lot about diseases — but there was one that they had no idea about.

“To hear the word infantile paralysis was very, very scary for parents at that time. Didn’t understand it, didn’t know what caused it, didn’t know what to do about it,” she added.

The first case of infantile paralysis, or polio, was recorded in 1841. Fast forward more than a century, the disease killed close to 3,000 people in the U.S. in the 1949 epidemic, a time that Svihovec says she remembers well.

“We were young but we knew of people in the area that had got infantile paralysis, as well as President Roosevelt at the time,” she said.

Polio mainly affected children, and as she recalls, caused people to not be in large gatherings and to keep their distance if at all possible — a very familiar way of life in 2020.

“It was the fear of the unknown, just like the COVID,” she added.

As we know, older people are most at risk of serious coronavirus complications, putting the retired public office worker on high alert once again.

“It was hard for me to give up my volunteer work. I enjoyed working at the school, volunteering with some of the kids, but my main focus is been volunteering at our local museum which naturally had to be shut down this season,” Svihovec said.

She says she remembers a time when there were no vaccines or cures, so she is excited for the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, and looking forward to getting back to the activities and people she loves.

“In my mind, this is just another storm we need to weather, and we will get through it,” said Svihovec.

Svihovec says quarantining hasn’t been all that bad. She’s caught up on some reading and projects around the house. She says when the cabin fever starts to kick in, she goes out for a drive and waves at the other people who are doing the same.

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