Bill Bennett, the president of the Cranbrook Rotary Club, speaks with Karin Penner following her presentation on her experience with polio as a young girl. Trevor Crawley photo.

Cranbrook Rotary Club marks World Polio Day

Beloved community leader Karin Penner shared her experience overcoming the disease as a child

The Cranbrook Rotary Club marked World Polio Day on Oct. 24 by inviting Karin Penner to speak about her experience overcoming the disease as a young girl.

In a moving presentation to members and guests, Penner described the circle who saved her life, including family, friends, local nurses and doctors, and expertise from Elizabeth Kenny — a nurse who took a pioneering approach to polio treatment through muscle stimulation instead of immobilization.

Penner said she did not know how she contracted polio, but noted she had a severe reaction to a smallpox vaccine, followed by a bout with red measles in 1949.

One day, she came into her family home in the Wattsville neighbourhood after playing outside, collapsed on the kitchen floor, and couldn’t get up.

“This was the beginning of a long hard summer and a journey that would leave me remembering very little,” Penner said.

She said she remembers being taken to the hospital and lowered into a tub filled with very hot water.

“This is what I remember — the pain,” Penner said. “Excruciating pain, crying with pain, screaming with pain. Every little touch hurt.”

Her parents were devastated when they learned that the only two iron lungs — a mechanical respirator that enables a person to breathe when muscle control is lost — were already in use in B.C.

“The doctors told my parents that if I survived, I would, in all probability, be paralyzed. My mum and dad never bought into that,” Penner said.

The details surrounding how the connection between a local nurse familiar with Kenny’s polio treatment methods and Penner’s family was made is lost to time. Regardless, her family brought her home from the hospital, with the kitchen becoming ‘medical central’.

Penner lay on a cot beneath the window, as family members constantly kept hot water on the stove and soaked sheets that were applied to her body and massaged.

That went on for weeks in the summer months.

Penner said the first recollection to her recovery was laying in a big bed, propped up by pillows with her Auntie Louise singing to her.

As she recovered, her father promised and followed through on purchasing a bicycle — a navy-blue and silver two-wheeler she constantly rode up and down the streets to regain her strength.

“I was determined to master the art of riding a bike and strengthening those muscles,” Penner said.

As she recovered and went into junior high school, she said she dreaded physical education because she was intimidated by those who could run, while she was afraid of doing activities such as a somersault because of the pain caused by polio.

However, she could hardly wait to join the Cranbrook Girls Bugle Band, which itself is a physically-demanding activity due to the marching.

“That was, in my parents eyes, a big test,” Penner said. “Could I endure the walking and the marching? I did and loved every minute of it.”

Penner also noted why her inclusion in later events such as the Olympic Torch relay and the Rick Hansen Man in Motion meant so much.

“I was doing something I was never supposed to do — walk.”

The Cranbrook Rotary Club, and member clubs across the world, have adopted the eradication of polio as a long-time goal, and it is very much within reach. Currently, polio worldwide is all but eliminated, however, cases are still being reported in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Along with partners such as the World Health Organization and others, Rotary International polio eradication efforts have led to 2.5 billion immunizations for children in 122 countries.

Penner ended her presentation with a call to action.

“Rotarians, continue on with your campaign to eradicate polio,” she said. “Get rid of this disease and stop the suffering.

“I’m Karin Penner.

I had polio.

And I am a polio survivor.”

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