TIRR Memorial Hermann’s roots go back to the 1950s, when the polio epidemic was at its height in the United States. Founded as one of the first polio treatment centers in the nation, TIRR Memorial Hermann transition with the discovery of a polio vaccine to apply its rehabilitation expertise to catastrophically injured patients.
Fast-forward more than 60 years to the COVID-19 pandemic, when physicians and staff at TIRR were quick to ensure that those who survived polio would be among the first to receive the new vaccine.
“As soon as we knew the vaccines would be available, we had discussions among the management team about how to provide them,” says Nicole Harrison, MBA, BSN, RN, NEA-BC, vice president and chief nursing officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital-Katy and the Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Network. “Our patients with post-polio syndrome were the first who came to mind. Many of them contracted polio before a vaccine was available, and we wanted to make sure they didn’t miss out again.”
Rhonda Young got a call from a TIRR Memorial Hermann staff member on her 69th birthday in January 2021, asking if she would like a COVID-19 vaccine. “I said, ‘Yes!’ and we scheduled my vaccine for the afternoon of January 8. I was so surprised that they called. It was like happy birthday to me!” she says.
Young was the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the hospital. Like most patients with post-polio syndrome treated at TIRR Memorial Hermann, she contracted the disease before the polio vaccine became available in 1955. “I was a toddler, between 18 and 22 months old,” she says. “I don’t remember very much of the experience except that I was put on a polio ward, and my parents weren’t allowed to visit. I was in the hospital for about 60 days and then had to relearn how to walk. There are a couple of photos of me on the table and my mom doing physical therapy with me.”
Polio left Young with a shorter left leg. “I had two surgeries to stimulate its growth—they were trying to catch my growth spurt after first grade and then again after second grade,” she recalls. “They were successful, and today I have only a quarter-inch difference in the length of my legs and scars around the knee on both sides. After those two surgeries, I thought I was done with the polio stuff.”
But many post-polio patients have developed chronic medical conditions that may include respiratory problems. “We were so fortunate to have had an opportunity to give these patients something they missed back in the 1950s—a vaccine delivered early enough to protect them,” says Gerard Francisco, MD, affiliated professor and chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Wulfe Family Chair of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. Dr. Francisco is chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann and director of the NeuroRecovery Research Center on the hospital’s campus.
Young was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome in 2008 by affiliated physician Carlos Vallbona, MD. Dr. Vallbona emigrated from Spain to the U.S. in the 1950s during the raging polio epidemic and joined the medical staff at TIRR and the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine.
“Dr. Vallbona looked at me from head to toe and noticed the differences between the two sides,” she says. “He said, ‘I suspect more than your left leg was affected.’ I didn’t have respiratory problems, but I was tired and found I couldn’t do the things I normally did. A lot of things made sense after he diagnosed me.”
Young returns to TIRR’s Post-Polio Clinic annually for a checkup. “We pride ourselves on our post-polio program, which is one of only a few in the country,” Harrison says. “After we set up our COVID-19 vaccine clinic here, we vaccinated many other patients with spinal cord injury, brain injury or limb loss, all of whom met the criteria to be among the first vaccinated. We finished most of our patients in March 2021, and then opened up vaccines at the clinic to caregivers of patients, employees and after that, the community.”