Decades ago, people lived in fear of a dangerous virus.

A close friend asked me the other day if I would get the COVID-19 vaccine if it were available right now. She told me that she would definitely not be vaccinated, but I believe that I probably would.

This brings me back to a time long ago, and the name of Dick Chaput comes to mind.

If you were in Nashua public schools in the late 1960s, then you would remember him. The first time I saw this young man wheeled into a school auditorium on his back, I was both frightened and curious about him.

Dick Chaput had been paralyzed since the age of 9 from the neck down after catching poliomyelitis. It was then that I had learned a hard lesson about the cruelties of life.

Poliovirus attacks by destroying the nerve cells in the spinal cord. The virus may cause paralysis but is easily preventable by getting the polio vaccine.

Dick Chaput was born in 1937, which means he would have been infected by 1946.

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis.

If only the polio vaccine had been around for young Dick Chaput and so many others. It was heartbreaking to observe this courageous man as he addressed me and my classmates. He delivered an inspiring speech and I watched him physically struggle to breathe.

For most of his 42 years of life, Dick Chaput would be confined to an iron lung (tank respirator) at night to stay alive, but his strong faith in God kept him going so that he could be a symbol of strength and survival to others. It’s a remarkable story about a remarkable Nashua man.

Polio was at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s. The virus was responsible for “more than 15,000 cases of paralysis in the United States each year,” according to an article at the U.K.’s Guardian.com.

People everywhere were frightened until the injectable vaccine was finally available in 1955. Like COVID-19 today, polio had become one of the most feared diseases in the U.S. People were sheltering in place. Public swimming pools were closed. Fourth of July celebrations were canceled. Movie theaters urged patrons not to sit too close together to avoid spreading the disease.

I have no doubt that the United States will wipe out the COVID-19 virus and that a vaccine is on the horizon. But until that time, good hand-washing habits and social distancing matter.

And as Philadelphia’s Mayor Jim Kenney recently scolded residents there:

”Put on the damn mask!”

He’s right. If you are able to wear a cloth covering (some people cannot), please do it.

Joan Stylianos is a Nashua native. Her column is published weekly. She can be reached at jtania512@gmail.com.