April 14, 2014 12:00 PM

When 10-month-old Lucian Olivera got a cough and runny nose and started tugging on his ear one day in June 2012, everyone thought it was a run-of-the-mill ear infection. “We were prescribed antibiotics and told to give him [pain reliever] for the fever,” says his mom, Erin. A few days later, “he didn’t want to stand up,” she recalls. “I put him on the floor, and he was like a caterpillar, sort of dragging his left leg along.” Taking him to the hospital and sent home with more pain reliever, Olivera realized after a few more days this was no routine cold. “I went to change his diaper, and he let out a huge scream,” she tells People. “If you are a mom, you know that means something.”

Despite visits to specialists and countless medical tests, the Moorpark, Calif., mom learned what that something was only after she spotted a local news story in February, nearly two years later, about a polio-like illness causing sudden-onset, permanent paralysis in a small number of California children. “I got sick to my stomach,” says Olivera, 39, who works in the bakery of a local supermarket. “I called my mom right away, and she said, ‘Oh my God. This is Lucian.’ ” On March 14 Lucian became the 15th child and 24th person in California diagnosed with the illness; public health authorities are still investigating whether all the diagnoses are correct. “I was terrified,” Olivera says, “but [at least] I knew I wasn’t crazy.”

Just the word polio raises terror in the hearts of parents. But experts say the “acute flaccid paralysis” Lucian and other children have experienced is not a return of the disease, which was eradicated long ago in the U.S. “We are talking about serious disability in the children who have been affected,” says Dr. Keith Van Haren, a pediatric neurologist at Stanford University’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. But, says Dr. Van Haren, who is reviewing the cases, “this syndrome is exceedingly rare. This is not an epidemic. There is no reason to panic.” The Centers for Disease Control, in a statement, said, “At this time CDC does not believe the situation in California poses a public health threat.”

Still, Dr. Van Haren and a few families are speaking out to put parents and doctors on alert – and to make sure all potential cases are reported to state health departments. Van Haren, 36, says the most likely culprit is an “enterovirus” – belonging to a broad family of viruses that includes polio as well as many relatively harmless ones—that was circulating as recently as December; in all but a tiny fraction of those exposed, there are no serious or lasting symptoms.

But for the unlucky few, the results have been life-changing. Sofia Jarvis, now 4, was the first child Van Haren diagnosed in November 2012, about three weeks after what started out as flu-like symptoms turned into breathing problems that landed her in intensive care. Leaving the pediatrician’s office with her mom after she was released, Sofia reached into the children’s toy-to-go chest with her left hand; “she stopped midway,” unable to grasp the superheroes stickers, her mom, Jessica Tomei, 37, of Berkeley, recalls. Today the red-haired dynamo refers to the limp arm that hangs at her side as “Lefty.” On a recent Sunday afternoon, she cheerfully tells a visitor, “Lefty doesn’t work anymore,” as she runs and plays at a party. While Sofia, who gets physical therapy, wiggles her left thumb, doctors don’t expect much more progress. “It’s been very hard on our family,” says Tomei. “But we’re lucky she’s not paralyzed from the neck down. She can still do her ballet. She’s so young she’s adapting already.”

Lucian Olivera is too. Mom Erin and dad Israel, 38, a hardware department manager, found a measure of peace in finally learning why their son needs a brace on his left leg and gets around with what he calls his “candy canes.” There are days, Erin says, “when we throw ourselves a pity party. But Lucian makes us laugh with his faces and things he says. And you forget about his disability.”

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