'I Always Liked to Fly'

Stricken with polio in 1946, the prognosis for 11-year-old Tenley Albright was bleak. Doctors didn't understand how the polio virus entered the body, and they didn't know how to treat it. The only certainty was that the disease began with fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and, in some cases, paralysis. To contain polio, hospitals confined children like Tenley, allowing only minimal contact with the outside world. "They actually brought my brother to the yard of the hospital and put a ladder against the wall," Albright remembers. "They pushed my bed to the wall and opened the window so I could say hello and see his face."

With April marking the 50th anniversary of Jonas Salk's development of the polio vaccine, survivors like Albright reflect and remember those still contracting the disease. Although the United States has not reported a case of polio since 1993, there were 1,264 worldwide cases reported last year, mostly in Nigeria, India and Pakistan. Just last week, international health officials said polio has broken out in Yemen, as the disease spreads across Africa and into the Middle East.

Albright, who went on to become the first American female figure skater crowned world champion (1953) and Olympic champion (1956), and later a Harvard-educated surgeon, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's William Lee Adams about polio and its effects on her as a child, skater and physician. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: At age 69, are you still skating?

Tenley Albright: Sure. Just not often enough. I hear the music and just want to take off.

Are you doing anything to celebrate the anniversary of the Salk vaccine?

The first thing I'm doing is actually allowing myself to think about the whole time. I think a lot of us who had polio think of it as, "OK, that was the past, that happened, that was sad and we don't have to think about it any more."

But it has so many applications to what's going on now in science and gives so much hope to the changes that can happen with the tremendous research going on. At Harvard Medical School we're having an afternoon celebrating and gathering survivors, to honor [the late] Dr. John Enders who identified the virus at Harvard Medical School so many years ago.

People who contract polio initially have no signs of the illness and no idea that they are carrying the virus. How did you find out?

It was 1946. No one knew what it was. It just had a name: "polio."

It was terrifying because no one knew how you got it, what it came from, how it spread, how to treat it or how to cure it. I was holding my 6-week-old cousin Lauren. I remember sitting in a chair holding her and being so happy to see this little baby in my arms and I said to my mother, "Could you please come over here and hold Lauren? I'm afraid that I'm going to drop her."

And that was my first symptom.

What else happened?

When someone has polio it comes on very quickly. It was a matter of hours. My mother put me in her bed and my father came home and called the doctor. I didn't know what was going on--I just knew that I didn't feel well. [My father] examined if my neck was stiff and it was. I was taken to the hospital that night.

When you were diagnosed, did you grasp the severity of your illness?

I had no idea. All I knew is that I was put in isolation--in a room that had a window, a metal bed and a door. And I wasn't told what I had. First of all, they have to make a diagnosis and they do that by spinal tap. I found out later that my parents had persuaded them to take the sign "polio" off my door. One time--when one of the nurses came in--she said something about "my other polio patients."

I asked her, "Is that what I have?" I asked another nurse to bring me a dictionary and that's how I found out what I had.

Prior to contracting polio, you were an active child who loved to skate. What was it like sitting in a hospital all day?

It was very uncomfortable. The main thing was the exhaustion and the inability to move. I was confined flat in bed. I do remember the Monday morning the doctors came in with the housing officers and said, "On Friday, we're going to help you stand up and ask you to take three steps."

Looking back on it now, all week I was visualizing that. There was no practice--it was just visualizing it. The strange thing is when I completed in world class competition in skating I was visualizing, and of course that was long enough ago there wasn't sports medicine and sports psychology. We just sort of visualize without knowing that's what we're doing.

What treatments were available at the time?

[There] was a stainless steel canister on wheels, and in it there were moist towels. It was plugged in and heated up the towels. They were placed on your limbs twice a day. It was called "Sister Kinney."

I was never in an iron lung, but there was a big ward of them on the same floor outside my room.

How did your neighbors and friends react when you were released from the hospital?

I didn't play with my friends for quite a while until the parents got comfortable. No one knew how it was spread. Now we know it is taken in through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. My parents explained to me that the doctors said although I wouldn't be contagious, other people didn't know that.

Did the doctors discourage you from skating again?

No. They told my parents, "If there is anything she liked to do before, do try to let her do that."

I had started skating before that and loved it. I remember that first time back in the rink--it was this big, dark, huge place. I put my foot on the ice and just held on to the barriers--hand over hand over hand.

Do you think you would have become Olympic Champion if you hadn't gotten polio?

Looking back, that same feeling of preparing to stand up and trying to take three steps on that next Friday [after my diagnosis] came back again. It was sort of, "OK, you're going to do your utmost" and it was just so important to me to be successful doing that. I have never thought of it every day, but [surviving polio] did make me appreciate being able to jump down stairs and fly around on the ice.

Did it influence your decision to become a surgeon?

I know it was having polio and being in the hospital that made me feel truly motivated to find out more, learn more, see what I could do. How could I help? What is there to find out? And also, I'm very conscious of the fact that it really made me appreciate my muscles. I always liked to try to fly and broke a number of umbrellas jumping off roofs and things.

Does it influence you now that you are a surgeon?

That night I went into the hospital and was put in this bare room with this just white metal bed, they examined me and told me that they were going to do a spinal tap--a lumbar puncture. I asked what that was and they showed me a long needle that looked like a foot long and said, "Rick's going to put this in your back."

No one ever told me that they weren't going to put that needle all the way in. They had me lie on my side. I remember very clearly--there must have been six or seven men in white coats near the door in a semi-circle. The person doing the puncture wiped off my back and got me in position. I said, "Can somebody please hold my hand?" There was absolute silence. I remember seeing those men sort of look at each other and nobody moved. And then the one--second from the right--stepped forward and held my hand. And that made such a difference to squeeze someone's hand when it really hurt and to know someone else knew how much it hurt. Because of that I have never done a surgical procedure on anybody without having someone hold their hand. I always wished I knew who that young man was so I could thank him.

It's wonderful that right now we can look at something that was so terrifying and such a worldwide epidemic, and by persisting with research the virus was discovered. The Salk vaccine and the Sabin vaccine were discovered. It really changed the whole horizon about polio, but we still have to do anything we can to stamp out those few last cases. There are still 40 people who are in the iron lung and have been all that time. There's still no cure and there still is no medicine that kills the virus.

Will you be attending the figure skating event at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin?

Since it was '56 for me, I'll love to sit in that audience and cheer 50 years later! It'll be fun to be there. I'll have to practice screaming and clapping loud in the meantime.