When he was young, this Concord doctor saw a pandemic up close

  • Dr. Oge Young of Concord wants people to realize that getting the COVID-19 vaccine is important in battling the virus, especially after he remembers his childhood friend who contracted polio when he was just 5 years old. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff


  • FILE - In this July 18, 1962 file photo, a girl swallows a lump of sugar coated with a dose of the Sabin polio vaccine, served in a paper cup in Atlanta, Ga. (AP Photo/File) —AP

  • Mrs. Dayton George holds her son Brian, 2, as she and her family take the Sabin oral polio vaccine in Richardson, Texas, July 29, 1962. Other children, left to right, are: Dane, 12; Randy, 11; and Susan, 9. Mr. Dayton George is behind the nurse dispensing the Sabin treated sugar cubes. All Dallas County residents were urged to take the vaccine. Ferd Kaufman / AP file

Monitor columnist
Published: 2/20/2021 7:31:24 PM

Oge Young of Concord, a retired OB/GYN, figured this was a good time to deliver memories of a schoolyard friend, Guy, from more than 70 years ago.

Oge and Guy grew up together in Portland, Ore., climbing Pacific Northwest trees and smacking tetherballs around. To this day, Young relays an inspiring story about his childhood friend, who contracted polio at 5 years old in 1952, just a few years before a pair of vaccines – still used today – hit the market.

Guy lost the use of his legs, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a doctor. Also an OB/GYN, as a matter of fact, in Indiana. They haven’t spoken in years, but the change in Guy’s life that year, 1952, and the sadness Young felt will never leave him.

“He could walk with braces and crutches,” Young told me by phone. “A lot of perseverance. He was not to be denied.”

Guy still practices in Indiana. He didn’t return a phone message to his office. They’ve drifted apart.

But Young never forgot a few things from those old days, not least of which was the sad truth that Guy came close to receiving a vaccine that would have kept his legs strong.

Young likes to use Guy as an example. His friend had no chance to defend himself against polio, and now, Young worries that there are a lot of people who either don’t think they need the COVID vaccine, or don’t feel safe getting it.

That’s the spark behind Young’s membership into the Healthcare Voices of New Hampshire. More than 1,000 professional have registered, taking a pledge that says:

“In addition to mask wearing and social distancing, we the undersigned advocate for broad participation in the COVID-19 vaccine program based on rigorous scientific research; and pledge to get vaccinated ourselves.”

They make their own videos, essentially pleading with people to be smart, to trust, to make an appointment. You could feel Young shake his head in disbelief when asked why someone might opt not to get the COVID vaccine.

“It’s hard to imagine that a person would not jump at the chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine,” Young said. “I’m old enough to have been alive during the polio epidemic, when the public lived in real fear of getting it or having a child get it.”

Polio was dangerous, deadly even, to be sure, gaining dramatic momentum because it affected children most of all.

Yet, while polio killed 3,145 in 1952 – its deadliest year and the one in which Guy’s life changed – that number pales in comparison to the number of people COVID has claimed, 490,000, as we approach one full year under quarantine.

“So I can’t imagine that someone wouldn’t want this (vaccine) for themselves,” Young said, “or at least get it for family and friends and others.”

Back in the ’50s, tension was already building in the U.S., over Korea and Russia, and everyone by then had a fresh vision of a beloved late president and polio victim, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was never seen walking in newsreels.

The fear was real.

“My father had as much fear of his family contracting polio as he had fighting in the infantry on the front lines in Italy during WWII, and he was wounded four times,” Young said. “Parents were emotionally paralyzed by the thought of their child developing a physical paralysis from polio.”

Guy and Young had barely entered grade school when polio struck. Soon, another classmate of Young’s lost the use of his legs as well. Again, polio. Again, the vaccine was close enough to touch at the time.

“Both lived crippled, so it was right there for me to see,” Young said. “I was very aware of how devastating this disease could be, and I was also aware of how worried parents were for their children.”

Young wants to relieve your worry. That’s his job with the Healthcare Voices of New Hampshire, organized by another retired Concord doctor, Bob Friedlander.

Alert the public. Wake people up. Make sure they know this vaccine works. Make sure they know they need a vaccine fast, before the already-evolving virus changes its stripes further, leaving the possibility that the current vaccine might not work on the future COVID virus.

Young says the science works. The vaccine creates a harmless protein on a cell. The same kind of protein found on the surface of the COVID virus. The body, recognizing the foreign protein as something that doesn’t belong, builds antibodies to fight and kill it. COVID, the medical community insists, has little chance.

“I had total confidence in the science and medicine, which is what is so appalling these days,” Young said. “It’s like we’re going backward, but we had great trust and faith in the vaccine.”

While the country and world searched for an answer to polio in the ’50s, an undercurrent of worry, palpable and omnipresent, spread like the virus, making a name for itself nationwide.

No drinking from water fountains. No swimming in public pools. Those were the rules. At least until this killer could be corralled.

Two years after Guy lost his ability to walk, Young, just 7 at the time, remembers waiting in a long line at his high school with his mother and two older sisters. He remembers popping a sugar cube – containing an active yet weakened version of the polio virus to build his immune system – into his mouth.

He was too young to fully absorb what his place in world history was and would always be. Young said he wished he could have done more for his friend, who at the time had no more trees he could climb.

“It was pretty devastating,” Young said. “I felt really badly and it did not seem right that it happened to him and didn’t happen to me. That probably played more of a role on my psyche than I thought.”

They kept in touch for a while, via high school reunions. It’s been years, though, since the two spoke. Still, Young has a vision, telling me, “I could see his face as I did in third and eighth grade. He was bright and so young. If I could do it over again, I would have spent more time talking about his sadness. He would never let it show.”

These days, with COVID sticking to us like Bazooka bubble gum under a desk, Young thinks a lot about his old buddy. He feels lucky. He hopes others will smarten up. Make their own luck by fighting back. Get vaccinated.

Young said he might call Guy, try to reach for the past. Through Guy, Young has firsthand experience with vaccines and viruses. He felt the terror.

Then, 66 years ago, Young waited on a long line at the local high school. He was given his sugar cube, then left, and he said something inside of him changed.

“I had a great sense of relief walking away,” Young said.

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