Life after polio

Survivors of polio offer unique training opportunity for physical therapy students

By Jill Pease

Carolyn Raville started to notice the symptoms when a trip to the mall became physically exhausting.

“All of sudden I found I could not walk the length of the mall and go from store to store. I was so fatigued I had to sit down,” she said.

In 1982 after a year of testing, Raville received her diagnosis. Decades after her complete recovery from polio, she had developed post-polio syndrome.

In February, Raville and 20 members of the North Central Florida Post-Polio Support Group were in a Doctor of Physical Therapy classroom, sharing their stories of polio and post-polio experiences and allowing the students to perform basic tests of muscle strength, range, balance and function. In the 15 years the group has been visiting UF physical therapy classes, they have participated in the training of 900 students.

“I know of no other support group who has remained committed and dedicated to the education of physical therapy students as this one,” said Andrea Behrman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the college’s department of physical therapy.

More than 440,000 polio survivors in the United States may be at risk for post-polio syndrome, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The condition causes fatigue, progressive weakening in the muscles affected by polio, muscle atrophy and respiratory problems. Experts aren’t sure what causes post-polio syndrome, but they believe it is related to degeneration in the muscle fiber nerves that took over function to compensate for damage caused by the polio virus.

Raville founded the Post-Polio Support Group 21 years ago with an educational mission. The symptoms of post-polio syndrome can mimic other illnesses like multiple sclerosis, and it can sometimes take years for a patient to receive a diagnosis. Visiting the Doctor of Physical Therapy classes is one way the group is teaching health providers about the special needs of patients who have had polio.

“The students have all been very eager to learn more about us. They have enjoyed the fact that they can actually put hands on a real live polio survivor,” Raville said. “I think the most important thing for therapists and physicians is to listen to the polio survivor. We are unique and you can’t find any two who are alike.”

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