By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Alice Wikene remembers polio. She lived through an era of fear caused by the paralyzing disease.
“It was a very frightening situation,” said Wikene, 86, of Lynnwood. “One man on the block next to us, he was bedridden. As a kid I would run down and visit him.”
When Wikene was young, the cause of poliomyelitis was unknown. The specter of a polio epidemic closed swimming pools. There were warnings about drinking fountains or letting children play outside. Wikene recalls keeping her small sons, now 60 and 65, inside on hot days to prevent exposure to the dread disease that put children in leg braces.
“When we got that vaccine, we all stood in a line to get into the building; lines were three and four blocks long,” Wikene said Monday.
It was 1954, the year Dr. Jonas Salk’s wide-spread polio vaccine trial began, when Wikene first volunteered for the March of Dimes. Research that led to Salk’s vaccine was funded by the organization. Like thousands of others, Wikene went door to door collecting dimes to help end the polio scourge.
The disease, eradicated by widespread use of immunizations, is no longer a threat in the United States. Yet Wikene remains a loyal March of Dimes volunteer.
On Saturday, she’ll be up early to help at the March for Babies, a fundraiser for March of Dimes. The 3.5-mile walk, starting at 9 a.m., begins and ends in Everett’s American Legion Memorial Park. March of Dimes, marking its 75th anniversary this year, now works to prevent premature births and birth defects, and helps provide prenatal care.
Wikene no longer walks in the event, but she’s a spirited cheerleader. She’ll help create a balloon arch for walkers to pass through. And she’ll cook dozens of hot dogs to be served at the finish line.
“She knows we appreciate her,” said Marla Ellis, director of communications for the March of Dimes Washington Chapter.
Wikene’s dedication to March of Dimes was part of her 37-year career with the Fluke Corp. Wikene, who worked for the company in Everett until age 71, organized teams of co-workers for March of Dimes walks.
Ellis said the Snohomish County walk, one of many around the state through May, is expected to raise about $260,000. Last year, it brought in $225,000. There is no registration fee and any donation is welcome, Ellis said.
One advancement March of Dimes funds is surfactant treatment, which alleviates respiratory distress syndrome in premature infants, Ellis said. Premature birth is a leading cause of infant death, and some survivors suffer from learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, hearing loss and other chronic conditions.
Ellis has heard Wikene’s stories about the bad old days of polio. “She remembers when not one block in her community didn’t have a family impacted by polio,” Ellis said. “They were so afraid.”
Until 1957, Wikene’s young family lived in Vancouver, B.C. Polio and efforts to fight it knew no borders, and she volunteered for March of Dimes in Canada.
The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which became known as the March of Dimes, was founded in 1938 with the help of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. At 39, in 1921, Roosevelt suffered what may have been polio or Guillain-Barre syndrome. His legs were paralyzed from then on.
Roosevelt likened the battle against polio to war abroad. Americans sent millions of dimes to the White House. Some of that history can be seen in our pocket change. After Roosevelt died in 1945, Congress approved his likeness being used on the dime, particularly because of his commitment to March of Dimes.
“Today, prematurity is the big focus, along with birth defects and infant mortality. In 40 percent of cases, we still don’t know the cause of prematurity,” Ellis said.
With about 9,000 babies born too soon each year in Washington, she said, “we have a lot more work to do.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
March for Babies
Snohomish County’s March of Dimes March for Babies starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at American Legion Memorial Park, 145 Alverson Blvd., Everett. Registration begins at 8 a.m. for the 3.5-mile walk, which supports prenatal care and research to prevent premature births. More info: www.marchofdimes.com or call 206-624-1373.