Living With Polio

by Pat Moynahan on December 10, 2016

Barry Kienzle

Barry Kienzle

FLORENCE – Rotary International’s three-decade battle to eradicate polio worldwide means more to Barry Kienzle than to most others.

Kienzle, the chief financial officer for Paul Hemmer Companies, contracted the crippling disease a month before his second birthday. After six surgeries stretched over 15 years, he enjoyed a pretty normal life for half a century, he said.

That all changed on July 16.

“I played golf in the morning and went to a birthday party in the afternoon,” Kienzle told members of the Florence Rotary Club at a luncheon on December 5. “At the party my right knee locked up.”

The diagnosis: severe arthritis, cartilage missing, torn meniscus and degenerative anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

The cause?

Knee problems occur in aging polio victims, the medical experts told Kienzle. They could not recommend knee replacement because his right leg lacked the muscle and tendon strength needed to support it, he said.

“I do not feel pain in the right leg,” added Kienzle. “I could be hurt or injured and not even know it.”

Progressive muscle and joint weakness are symptoms of post-polio syndrome, a condition that can appear 30 to 40 years after the disease strikes. Polio or poliomyelitis is a viral infection of the nervous system that crippled around 35,000 people each year in the United States alone before a vaccine was created in the 1950s, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Rotary International took on the task of eradicating polio worldwide in 1985. The service organization’s Polio Plus vaccination efforts have reduced the number of cases from 350,000 annually around the world to less than 100 this year, according to John Salyers, a Florence Rotarian and a member of Rotary International’s Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force.

Kienzle said his mother told him he was within a day of being put in an iron lung when he first contracted the disease. An iron lung is a cylindrical chamber designed to help people who can no longer breathe efficiently because of muscle weakness resulting from the disease.

Kienzle said he also was told he might never walk or run. He did wear a back brace until he was 5 and spent most summers in a cast until he was 17. But no sign of post-polio syndrome appeared for the next 50 years.

He is not certain what to expect next.

“I’m playing a waiting game,” Kienzle said, “but I’m one of the fortunate ones.”