James Richardson, shown here with his daughter Leslie, grew up with polio and is now seeing the signs of post polio syndrome.
In 1946, when James G. Richardson was 7, he contracted polio while playing with some friends. The Hartland boy was hospitalized for months, and woke up one day only able to move his head.
Now, nearly 68 years later, Richardson is one of the oldest surviving Vermonters to grow up with the highly contagious disease. As his condition deteriorates due to his post polio syndrome, Richardson’s story underscores the challenges the disease posed for generations of Americans, as well as the gaps in modern-day medical information since polio was all but cured by a vaccine introduced in 1955.
Ultimately, doctors, family and friends agree: Jim Richardson not only adapted to accept and embrace his disability, his approach may have actually prolonged his life and made him the perfect person to study, perhaps closing a few of those medical gaps.
As his primary care physician, Dr. Cheri Mather, noted, “He has surprised absolutely everybody.”
At the height of the polio epidemic in 1952, there were nearly 60,000 cases reported in the Western hemisphere, with more than 3,000 deaths on record just in the United States. Between 1930 and 1963 (the year of the last reported case in Vermont), there were 1,361 cases of polio in the Green Mountain State. Prior to 1930, there is no comprehensive data on the number of cases in Vermont, though it is well documented that the first major polio outbreak in the United States was in Rutland in 1894. In that case alone, there were 18 deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis reported, according to the office of the state epidemiologist.
According to the Vermont Historical Society, which published a lengthy article in 2011 on the polio epidemic of 1917 in Montpelier and Barre, “The terror inspired by this puzzling disease, in which one member of a family might be severely paralyzed while other children had only a slight fever or appeared to be perfectly well, led to quarantines and other health measures in Vermont and in the United States more generally.”
In turn, polio came with a stigma and a deep-seated fear that people — mostly young children — were at the greatest risk of paralysis and death. (Statistics do reveal that many of the worst cases and deaths involved children — but adults also were susceptible.) The method of how polio spread was unknown for many years, so urban myths shaped attitudes toward the disease — the most notable being that people avoided public swimming pools.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is fact: a majority of people paralyzed by polio through the documented U.S. cases have since died. The natural infection was eliminated from the United States by 1979, and the Western hemisphere by 1991.
But post polio syndrome lingers on. Across Vermont, it is estimated there are still several hundred people living with the effects of polio — and aging.
But not many of them have had the life Jim Richardson has.
He grew up in the Richardson farmhouse in Hartland, a quarter mile down the road from where he lives today.
James Glen Richardson is the oldest of four siblings: Gordon, Elizabeth and Anita came afterward.
He was born June 28, 1939, and had the typical bucolic life of a country boy from Vermont growing up in the early 1940s.
“Everything was really nice until I got the polio,” Richardson said during an interview at his Hartland home last month.
Occasionally, Richardson’s father, a farmer, would need a hand running the 400-acre farm, and he hired help. Among that help was a family — the Strongs — who lived in the house Richardson and his wife of 47 years, Ann, have called their home for decades now.
While the men worked, the children played, gliding down a makeshift slide fashioned by Richardson’s father from some scrap linoleum. One of the children was somewhat under the weather.
Two weeks later — the incubation period for polio — Jim Richardson developed flu-like symptoms while at class at the Four Corners School. He was feverish and throwing up. (The Strongs also had the symptoms but the polio did not manifest itself with them.)
Eventually, Richardson’s parents took him to a country doctor in nearby Woodstock, who instructed the family to get Jim to the hospital straightaway.
“He’s got polio,” Richardson recalled the doctor saying outright. “He knew right then it was polio.”
His parents also both contracted the polio (his mother was pregnant with Anita), and they were sick for about two weeks, but neither one of them suffered any paralysis or muscular deterioration.
In the hospital, as he was being treated, Richardson said he woke up one day unable to move his arms and legs.
“Something was making me feel like I needed to itch the end of my nose, and I couldn’t do that,” he recalled. With the immobility came instant fear. “It was scary.”
Paralysis was common among many of polio’s younger victims. As they grew, many of those children were wheelchair- or crutch-bound; others remained bedridden or had to be placed inside an Iron Lung.
Fortunately for Richardson, the polio did not cause him to lose all function of his limbs. But it had lasting effects with tough challenges to be overcome, especially around the farm.
He was in the hospital in Hanover, N.H., for five months and two days.
As part of the treatment, hot felts, or compresses, were wrapped around his limbs up to three times a day. He could feel the warmth but was unable to move at first. After about a month, doctors started to move him and work his atrophied muscles again. In time, Richardson got to a point where his legs worked well, but his upper body and arms had been severely weakened by the polio. They tried an experimental muscle transplant that moved muscles around inside his shoulder, leaving him with a unique scar on one side of his back.
Then, because of the polio, Richardson developed scoliosis, a curvature of his spine. As a result, his upper body is slightly bent.
“I went to a lot of appointments for years,” he said of his time being treated after the polio.
“I never had the function of my arms that would have helped me with so much of my work,” he said. “I had enough so that my partner (brother Gordon) and I could do all of the work. … There were certain things that he did, and there were certain things that I did.”
On the farm
Jim did a lot of the milking. While he had to make adjustments to the daily routine, including making special stools to improve his angle on the cows, he got the job done.
“Except for taking a week or two of vacation every year, I milked for 50 years,” he said. “I had to be careful crowding in next to a 1,000-pound animal and be sure she didn’t knock me over.”
The polio did not hold him back.
“My attitude was it had to be done,” he said, never taking pity.
“I worked around all of that,” he said.
Richardson perfected his carpentry and woodworking skills (which can be seen all around his old farmhouse), and even started a split-rail fencing business that still exists today. For years, he made beautiful, handmade wooden frames for a Woodstock gallery owner, as well as for his own home.
Throughout his life, to compensate for any lack of upper body strength, Richardson modified tools to allow him to accomplish all of his goals. He is a perfectionist, and often redid work that he felt was shoddy or not up to par.
His daughter, Deborah Thompson, said his can-do attitude and constant innovation — whether it was working or camping or puttering around the house — was instilled in her and her two sisters, Leslie Richardson and Monica DiCarolis. “He would teach us to work smarter. … We’ve always found a way to do things, to overcome our obstacles.”
Richardson loved farming. He mowed fields (including fields and meadows for many wealthy part-time residents of the area). During his interview, Richardson dared not calculate the number of hours he had spent cutting.
“I liked it,” he said. “Always liked it, but it was a lot.” (Of course, there was a time on Garvin Hill Road he hit a good-sized rock that bucked him out of his seat. Still holding onto the steering wheel as the tractor rolled forward, he shut down the Power Take-Off and the tractor stalled. “I just let go, and laid there on the ground for a long time before I got back on and finished the job and went on home.”)
The Richardson family also has operated a 10,000-tap sugaring operation each spring for decades. (Jim usually drove the tractor during sap collection.) “My father turned the sugaring part over to Gordon and I … that way he could sit back and not worry about it, and eat all the maple syrup he wanted,” he said.
Again, innovation changed how they did the work.
The brothers invented and patented a “piggyback pan” to increase syrup production by nearly 70 percent.
“If we’d done it 20 years quicker, it would have made a big difference,” he said of that thinking outside of the box.
As for the farming, Richardson semi-retired in recent years, leaving the mowing and dairy portion of the operation to his brother and two young nephews. (Although he was known to mow his own pastures in recent years “because it was the only way it was going to get done.”)
He was working around the farm right up until recently, when his breathing capacity diminished significantly, along with a rapid deterioration of his upper body strength — all of it part of the post polio syndrome.
Does he miss the work? “Of course,” he said, his eyes looking a little sad under his bushy eyebrows.
But now he said he has time to reflect on his life — and the history he has made and is making.
While he is attached to the corner of Hartland he has christened with his own sweat, Richardson likes to visit, wander, and let go of the regimen of a farming schedule. Richardson has built his own community of sorts.
The family has traveled a lot over the years, making close friends wherever they have gone, be it out West, to Alaska, Cape Cod, New York City, or right here in Vermont. A pop-up camper he modified created a lifetime of family stories and memories.
He remained active. While he cannot swim because of the polio’s effects, Richardson has spent a lifetime with his family and friends on the water sitting in a half-deflated inner tube. He has hiked, summiting countless New England peaks, canoed and camped around the Northeast. He has snowshoed, cross-country skied, and even attempted the Vermont rite of downhill skiing at the prodding of some friends.
“They must’ve caught me in a weak moment,” he joked. “I did get up there. I spent most of the time sitting on my butt.”
He has worked in many area homes doing odd jobs and carpentry work; he’s helped many a neighbor out of a pinch.
“That’s dad’s way,” Leslie Richardson said. “He loves people, and they love him.”
One friend was unique.
A neighbor, Frank Gardner, was a businessman who had a summer home in Hartland. Jim used to do work for him, and a strong bond formed between the two men: Frank also had polio. For him, it affected his legs.
“Together, we made one hell of a man,” Richardson quipped.
“Frank was a wonderful guy. He got his polio when he was 27 when he was in the service,” he said.
Gardner collected antique cars and had them modified with hand controls so he could drive them. One of those cars sits in Richardson’s barn.
Richardson’s friendships run very deep.
Wife Ann said she knows who has been by the house for post-chore breakfast by the mess and the dishes to be done.
Since the post polio syndrome’s final stages have started to take hold, Richardson has taken on a “rock star”-like status, with a steady stream of visitors — some from afar, sometimes six or eight a day — coming by for yet another chat and laugh.
“It has been remarkable,” said Thompson of the giving back from the community. “There has been such an outpouring of love.”
In late June, around the time of his 75th birthday, Richardson’s condition worsened.
He was hospitalized. Richardson slipped into a coma-like state that lasted for days. The post polio syndrome was further weakening the muscle fibers in the core of his torso and along his diaphragm. His breathing became difficult; one lung was failing and the other was filling with fluid.
Family was summoned from afar.
Mather, his doctor, said his hospitalization was no surprise. The post polio syndrome was going to lead to other medical conditions that would eventually worsen his condition, she said. It is all variable, she said.
Then, one day, Richardson surprised everyone.
He woke up, and rallied. He asked to be sent home under the supervision of his family and hospice. If he was going to die, it would be at home.
A week after returning to the house, he was sitting at his kitchen table being interviewed for several hours about growing up with polio and his hard-working life. There had been a family party just that weekend. There were photos showing a smiling Richardson surrounded by family; his color great, his smile broad.
This week, Leslie Richardson reported he was visiting a camp owned by one of his best friends in Morgan. He was off enjoying the lake with family.
Again, Mather seemed unfazed to hear Richardson was rallying. She said his innovation, his lust for life, his good humor and that positive attitude have clearly allowed her patient — and friend — to live a full life.
“It is not typical to see someone with polio work 80 hours a week,” she said. “He gives 200 percent. It has certainly kept him going.”
She said in the 1990s Jim began noticing shortness of breath and seeing weakness and balance issues.
“Being out of breath is the biggest problem,” he confirmed, a BiPAP, or bilevel positive airway pressure, machine nearby during the interview to keep his airways open. He cannot easily drink from a straw for risk of aspirating — he chews ice or eats Popsicles to hydrate, or he takes water a spoonful of water at a time.
Unfortunately for Jim Richardson, there is not a lot of medical research or documentation about post polio syndrome for people over 55. He is somewhat of an anomaly, and is treated as such.
Richardson has taken part in panels, where his file has been reviewed by doctors and medical students at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., as well as having his information shared with other medical professionals elsewhere in the world.
One physical therapist at the hospital tested Jim’s strength, range of motion and acuity — all because he had never worked with someone with post polio syndrome before.
“He wanted to test Jimmy out,” said Richardson’s wife.
In pulmonary rehab, the staff also wanted to study him. The testing was three times a week for an entire winter. It was somewhat rigorous, but he made lots more friends.
“Everywhere he goes, they are always interested. They don’t know about post polio syndrome. … They almost immediately start taking notes and writing,” said Ann.
The irony is the doctors and staff “are interested, but they have no answers,” she said.
When he first developed polio, Richardson said he does not recall ever being told he would not live a full life — or even that he his life might be limited.
“They might have,” he said. “But I guess I chose to ignore it.”
Even his hospice nurse, who is blunter than he said he really likes, is unwilling to offer any odds on his prognosis at this point.
“I tried to get her to tell me what my future might be,” he said. “She wasn’t telling.”
In the meantime, Richardson said he embraces the network of friends and family he has developed over a lifetime. He said he’s not mad, has no regrets. He said there is no point in playing the victim of circumstance or getting down on himself.
“That’s not his nature,” Ann said. “He figures it out for himself and does what he has to do.”
“Dad’s always had an adventure going,” Thompson said, looking over at her father. “He would not have it any other way.”
Jim Richardson only nodded and smiled.
Steven M. Pappas is the editor of The Times Argus.MORE IN Central Vermont
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