Itzhak Perlman: I Had Polio—Its Resurgence Angers Me When We Have a Vaccine

I had polio in 1949 when I was 4 years old. The first polio vaccine wasn't issued until 1955, so I missed it by a few years. One morning, I got up and tried to stand, and I couldn't. I knew there was something wrong. At that time, my parents did not know there was a polio epidemic. Of course, after a couple of days, they discovered what was happening.

I only remember lying down and looking out the window at the sun. It was always the same view day in and day out. And at one point, doctors performed a spinal tap—that was painful.

I was only in the hospital in Tel Aviv for a few weeks, after which my life completely changed. Before polio, I played with toys and I loved to ride a scooter and run around, but I don't actually remember my childhood before the illness. What changed is that I could no longer walk. I needed to go to the leg brace maker.

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Itzhak Perlman performing at the Barclays Center in February 2013. Perlman spoke with "Newsweek" about his experience having polio and how he's angry about the resurgence of the disease. James Devaney/Getty

They measured for braces, and they also measured for special shoes that could be connected to the braces. And then, of course, I started to walk with crutches; a totally different experience.

I do think it's easier to get used to change when you are young because you haven't had a lot of experiences. There wasn't much time that had passed where I had been able to walk.

I remember reacting to my illness without any bitterness, just as a life-changing event. I walked with leg braces, but I was lucky because polio did not affect my lungs or my arms. There were many children that had to be put in an iron lung, whereas my life just started to go in a different direction from the one I had imagined. I joke now that I realized a career in competitive soccer and running was going to go badly.

Of course, at that time, a lot of people were trying to find cures for polio. At my parents' home, there was always somebody visiting with a different kind of "cure" that never worked. They'd say, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if you go on this diet, or if you do these special exercises. This method will be perfect, then you'll start walking again." I suspect there was a slight lack of understanding within my family that walking normally again was not in my future.

I could always recognize kids who had polio. According to their ability to walk, some went through leg surgeries so that they wouldn't have to use braces. You could tell by their gait as they walked. For me, the decision was not to have surgery; it was not worth it, the doctors decided. So braces and crutches were a part of my new life.

Thanks to my parents' encouragement I continued with music, despite the fact I had polio. I wanted to pursue a career in music before my illness and they felt that since I was so interested in it, there was no reason to stop. You don't play the violin with your feet. You play with your hands, and my hands were just fine.

At the beginning of my professional career, I did have problems with people not accepting me. They only looked at the effect polio had on me, not at what I had to offer musically. That was a little bit of a problem, but I kept plugging away.

The only challenge I had was to prove that people should judge me by my music. I always wanted to separate the two things, because I felt that the music had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I had experienced polio. I never wanted people to say, "Well, you know, for somebody who can't walk, he plays very well."

After a while, people kind of got used to me. When I first went on the stage, I was walking with crutches. Now, it's a little more difficult, so I have a scooter to go on stage. But people now know me, and they judge me by what they hear.

In the beginning, I did not want the disability to be in any discussion about my music, but my attitude evolved. After a while, I was very concerned about access and attitudes toward the disabled. I wanted everybody to actually mention my disability to set an example and show how important it is to "separate your ability from your disability." That is my motto.

I don't recall my reaction when the polio vaccine was introduced in the 1950s. I was not even aware that there was such a vaccine; I was used to my new life.
I actually had a normal childhood. I had friends and we played soccer, and I was always the goalie, because I was standing there and had two crutches that helped me stop the ball. The only thing that I could not do in school was gym; I was excused.

I am absolutely angry about the resurgence of polio. If the vaccine had been available at the time I had polio, I would have had it. It seems absolutely ridiculous for people not to get it. When I hear that people refuse vaccines, my reaction is shock. It's a no-brainer. Polio is not fun. People suffer. I recently heard a comedian joking about how we don't know what's in these vaccines and he said, "You eat hot dogs, and you're telling me you're afraid of what's in these vaccines?"

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Perlman performs on the Ed Sullivan Show on Valentine’s Day, 1959. Steve Oroz/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

I get mad when I hear that people have these doubts. We were so close to eradicating polio. I don't believe you can say the current situation is not so bad simply because it's affecting only a few people Right now, there are a few cases, but polio will be back if everybody does not get vaccinated.

During the period I contracted polio, many children were affected. But when you get polio as an adult, it's not going to be a lot of fun. Imagine you have enjoyed your life, and all of a sudden, you are unable to do anything with your legs. It's tough.

My wife and I have been ensconced in Long Island for more than two-and-a-half years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was only in mid-August that we went to a restaurant for the first time since the pandemic began. And I'm starting to play again. I recently returned from performing at both the Ravinia Festival and the Tanglewood Music Festival.

Performing again is fantastic. Concerts are meant for a live audience. That's what it's all about. You get the vibes from the audience, and they get vibes from the stage. So it's been fun to start to get back to the stage and, in September, I will be playing at the Hollywood Bowl.

Life is beginning to return to normal. However, I'm very, very careful about wearing masks. I still feel we're not out of the woods yet. I went on a flight the other day, and the flight attendants all wore masks. It's interesting that on the return flight the attendants did not wear masks. I guess people have their own comfort zones.

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Itzhak Perlman onstage with conductor Gustavo Dudamel (right) in Los Angeles in 2014. Mathew Imaging/Getty

Right now, I'm a realist. I don't think that this pandemic is over. But maybe it's a little better. Now if you test positive for COVID-19 you aren't automatically in danger of dying. I think that's all because of the vaccines. Medicine is phenomenal. I'm very optimistic that we will eventually be able to protect ourselves better. But I don't know if COVID will ever go away.

Of course, in my view, vaccines are absolutely essential. You have to give yourself a chance. I mean, my arm is like a pinprick. There are so many holes! Diseases are evolving, but science is evolving, as well. Let's hope for better times in the future; it's up to us.

Itzhak Perlman is a world-renowned violinist and recognized as one of the greatest virtuosos of all time. He has performed multiple times at the White House and has won 16 Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jon Jackson.