Letter to the Editor by Jessica Jean-Gilles on “An Historical View of Nursing and Polio”

The 200th Birthday of Florence Nightingale: Celebrating the History of Nursing

December 15, 2021

Response by Jessica Jean-Gilles to “An Historical View of Nursing and Polio” by Kelley H. Pattison, PhD, RN (December 21, 2020)

Dear Editor,

I am writing in response to, “An Historical View of Nursing and Polio” by Kelley H. Pattison, PhD, RN (December 21, 2020), which captivated my attention. Ironically, I was reading an article about the remaining people still using their iron lungs in the U.S. Iron lungs are tank ventilators and it facilitated breathing for patients who were dyspneic due to the poliovirus. Before 1955, polio caused outbreaks of “more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2021, para. 3). In 1921, President Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio which caused him to be paraplegic. Thankfully, in 1955 and 1961, the Salk and Sabin Vaccine were created, respectively. As a result of the successful vaccination rates, “the United States has been Polio-free since 1979” (CDC, 2021, para. 1). Unfortunately, we are now facing another virus, SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19/Coronavirus).

On March 11, 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic (WHO, 2020, p.1). It has affected us in ways in which we were not prepared for and it has caused many deaths worldwide. We are, however, witnessing the same level of passionate nursing care that occurred during the polio epidemics in today’s care of patients with COVID-19. Nurse Elizabeth Kenny came from Australia to the U.S. in 1940 to help tackle poliovirus. She developed “The Kenny Method” which consisted of putting hot compresses on “the painful muscles to relieve spasms and giving gentle exercises to tone up and re-educate the muscles” (TIME, 1941, para. 2). “Nurses have been frontline in caring for COVID-19 patients, as well as in prevention, education, and other preventative health measures to slow the spread of disease” (Nikpour, Arrington, Michels, & Franklin, 2021, para. 2). At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses worked selflessly to provide care despite having a scare amount of personal protective equipment (PPE). The nurses were innovative in resource utilization to save the lives of others.

With my role as a public health advisor and a school nurse, I am also taking steps to minimize the spread of COVID-19. As a public health advisor, I conduct interviews and provide information to those who were exposed or tested positive about CDC guidelines on quarantine and isolation. I refer them to testing sites and supply them with information about various resources. As a school nurse, I maintain the health of students by promoting proper wearing of PPE, promoting hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, encouraging social distancing, and assessing and managing the medical needs of the students.

Reading this article gave me hope that we will fully eradicate COVID-19 like poliovirus. Within the first year of this pandemic, we’ve made progress with the creation of many vaccines. I am optimistic that we will have herd immunity with mass vaccinations, much like what we saw following the polio vaccinations. Although we are still learning about the COVID-19 virus daily, we are steps closer to understanding the virus and on our way to being back to normal.


Jessica Jean-Gilles, BSN, RN
Medgar Evers College
Brooklyn, NY


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, September 28). Polio Elimination in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/polio/what-is-polio/polio-us.html

Nikpour, J., Arrington, L., MIchels, A., & Franklin, M. (2021). COVID-19 and the nursing profession: Where must we go from here? Home. Retrieved from: https://healthpolicy.duke.edu/covid-19-and-nursing-profession-where-must-we-go-here

TIME. (1941, December 15). Medicine: Sister Kenny endorsed. TIME. Retrieved from: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,772865,00.html

World Health Organization (WHO). (2020, March 11). WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 11 March 2020. WHO Director-General. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020