Active life means normal life for polio survivor

HARVEY Viola Filler celebrates 96 years of life today, including 69 years as a polio survivor.

Awakening on the day after her 27th birthday on Sept. 23, 1944, to paralysis in her left leg, Filler recovered to walk again. She said having polio never stopped her from living an active life.

“If anything, it’s the exercise that kept me going,” she said. “I never felt I was handicapped. … I just lived a normal life.”

She and her husband, Alvin, raised four children on their Harvey-area farm. Filler gardened, raised and butchered chickens and milked cows, carrying the heavy milk buckets despite her limp. Even now, as a resident of St. Aloisius Long-Term Care Center in Harvey, she does a remarkable job of keeping her mind sharp and body fit.

Filler exercises regularly, using weights to make the traditional exercises for the elderly more challenging for her. She enjoys solving crossword puzzles, watching television game shows and following current events.

Her longevity is a family trait. She is one of 11 siblings, including four older siblings who lived into their 90s. Her only remaining sibling is the “baby” of the family, 89-year-old Vernon Dockter of Minot, who works as a greeter at Walmart.

Lacking a North Dakota registry, there’s no way to know whether Filler’s age makes her the state’s oldest survivor of paralytic polio. But given her 96 years and the limited information that is available, that may be the case.

A 1995 National Health Survey Interview estimated there would be about 315,000 polio survivors in the United States by 2016. Of those about 39,000 could be expected to be age 84 or older.

Filler was a young mother with 5- and 2-year-old sons and a five-month-old daughter when she developed flu-like symptoms that turned out to be polio, an infectious disease caused by a virus.

“I was very sick. I ached all over,” she said. Days later, on her 27th birthday, she realized something was wrong when she couldn’t get her fingers to open a pin while securing her baby’s diaper. The next morning, she discovered her left leg was paralyzed when she fell trying to get out of bed.

Filler sought chiropractic treatment and believes that may have been a good idea. The chiropractor prescribed exercise, which was the best therapy she could have gotten, she said.

She later sought other medical attention and spent two months in the polio ward in Trinity Hospital in Minot. Her respiratory system wasn’t affected so she had no need of a tank respirator, known as the iron lung, that often is associated with polio treatment. Her protocol involved exercise therapy known as Sister Kenny treatment.

An Australian, Elizabeth Kenny was given the honorary title of sister, used in British countries for “nurse,” according to information from the institute she founded. When she encountered her first case of polio in 1911, Kenny was unaware of conventional polio treatment that involved immobilizing the affected muscles with splints. Instead, she applied moist hotpacks to help loosen muscles and enable limbs to be moved, stretched and strengthened. Her treatment was controversial but proved to be the more effective therapy.

In 1940, Kenny came to the United States, and in 1942, she established the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis.

While in Trinity, Filler said, she performed Kenny’s exercises as prescribed.

“I was still able to get myself out of bed. They could lead me and I could walk,” she said. “But for the rest of the day, I would lay in bed. It didn’t do much good.”

She welcomed the chance to rejoin her family and get back to a more active life when released from the hospital.

“I asked my doctor whether I could go home,” she said, noting that he granted her a week but wanted her back to be re-examined. “They were so amazed at the improvement I made within a week.”

Filler maintained her regimen of floor exercises six days a week for years in addition to her work on the farm and keeping up with her children. A second daughter was born four years after her bout with polio.

“At that time, I didn’t even wear a brace,” she said. “I would lock my knee and I could walk, but I had to be very careful. If I would stumble, I would fall.”

Over the years, she broke a wrist and rib and injured her shoulder in various falls. The Fillers moved from the farm into Harvey in 1978 and Alvin Filler died in 1984. About a year or so later, Filler fell and broke her hip. After that experience, she began to wear a brace.

Now she uses a walker as well as a brace. In the last several years, the weakness in her leg has increased, making it impossible to lift that leg any longer.

Filler credits exercise for giving her the use of her left leg for so long.

Her youngest daughter gave her a stationary bike, which she pedalled three miles a day for 28 years until entering the long-term care center at age 88. The bike had more than 30,000 miles on it when she moved to St. Aloisius, she said.

Filler said she once asked her children if they felt her limp hindered her in any way as a mother. She was pleased and relieved to be told that they felt she could do anything any person with two good legs could do.

“Her persistence, discipline and optimistic attitude are admirable, to say the least. She’s certainly been an inspiration,” Connie Pate of Austin, Texas, said of her mother in an email.

Poliomyelitis was common in the United States before a vaccine was introduced in 1955. Most people infected with polio have no symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Among those who do have symptoms, fewer than 1 percent develop paralysis, which can lead to long-term disability or death.

The last cases of naturally occurring paralytic polio in the United States identified by the CDC involved an outbreak among the Amish in several Midwestern states in 1979. There were small numbers of additional cases of polio until 1999, typically in people who moved to the United States from other countries or who reacted to the oral vaccine. The vaccine now is given as an injection in the United States. Although the vaccine is available in most places around the world, the Polio Global Eradication Initiative lists Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan as countries where the virus remains active.

Filler said she doesn’t recall the introduction of the polio vaccine, but she sees the results and considers the vaccine to be a good thing. As the survivor of a illness made rare by a medical break-through, Filler said her wish is for similar advances against cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases that concern people today.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944 or Managing Editor Kent Olson at 857-1939. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to