Leff’s book describes post-polio journey
By Sandy Bond
In hot, dusty attics, working as an electrician’s assistant after the Rural Electrification Act was passed, Wenzel Leff, 16, spent the summer of 1949 helping to bring electricity to farmhouses that previously had only kerosene or gas lanterns or candles to dispell the darkness.
It is also the year he contracted the poliovirus. With wisdom and wit and without self-pity, in “Traveling Without A Spare,” Wenzel Leff, M.D., wrote about navigating his post-polio journey. The book is a trip back to the time when polio was epidemic. The third of six children born to Wenzel, Sr., and Marie Leff, he was born and grew up in Mobridge.
Polio can be traced as far back as 1400 B.C., he wrote, as Egyptian stone carvings show a youth who appears to have been crippled by polio. Polio, in its epidemic form, is fairly recent.
Originally thought to be caused by bacteria, in the 1890s scientists discovered it was a virus, which is Latin for poison or toxin.
“Prior to the advent of modern hygiene systems,” he wrote, “polio was a common intestinal infection, passed from one person to another by fecal contamination.
“…with our improving public sanitation, polio epidemics continued to crop up across the non-immune country.” The Salk and Sabin vaccines were not yet discovered.
“Many polio victims have reported,” he continued, “excessive exercise or trauma preceded their paralytic polio.”
Trauma, caused by crawling and lying on two-by-four rafters for much of the day, coupled with the extreme heat, might have contributed to the severity of the disease, he speculated.
As a physician and polio survivor, Leff wrote to educate and support other polio survivors who are grappling with an emergence of new pain, weakness and fatigue as they age.
The poliovirus’ manifestations are initially difficult to diagnose. Feeling hot, headachy, and tired, he attributed it to the aftereffects of working so hard that day in the sweltering attic. He, unknowingly, was entering the first stage of polio. The next day, his illness had progressed to the extent that his family took him to see the family doctor. Suspecting polio because of the increasing number of cases physicians were seeing all over the country and because it was summer, the time of year they had seen the most cases, physicians did a spinal tap. Discovering white blood cells in Leff’s spinal fluid consistent with acute polio, within two hours Leff was admitted to a makeshift basement polio ward at St. Luke’s Hospital in Aberdeen. He was one of 14 individuals from the city of 4,000 who were quarantined there. He drifted into a restless sleep listening to the sounds of calls for help and the rhythmic groan of the iron lung motors and pumps. “It became apparent that there were people who were a lot sicker than I was, and said a little prayer for them…”
Because his parents had reported that he had been experiencing headaches and difficulty swallowing, doctors were worried he might have been suffering from bulbar polio, the type that primarily attacks the nerves in the upper portion of the spinal cord (the brain stem), leading to difficulty in swallowing, breathing, and speech, eye and facial movements.
He met another young man from Mobridge who was suffering from bulbar polio. Lying with only his head outside the “iron lung,” a large metal tank with an attached pump changing the amount and pressure of the air within the tank, it allowed him to breathe.
Physicians discovered Leff suffered from spinal polio, whereby the virus attacks the nerves of the lower portion of the spinal column, affecting the trunk and extremities.
He was treated with massive amounts of vitamins and antibiotics, now known not to have an impact on a virus. At St. Luke’s the patients were treated with the Sister Kenny Treatment, which included exercise and frequent stretching of the muscles to preventing contractures and preventing atrophy. Discharged at Thanksgiving, he quickly caught up academically with his classmates and by the spring of 1950, although not jumping or running, he was walking slowly without fatiguing.
After graduating from medical school, Leff practiced medicine for several decades, sometimes with little inconveniences, before retiring. He and his wife Julanne raised a family.
“For most of my adult life, I lived in a state of denial; I was too busy and functioning too well to think much about my polio,” he writes. “I assumed that the worst was over – the polio infection was done…”
In the latter portion of his practice, he began noticing some weakening in his lower extremities. He was entering his post-polio journey.