Why polio eradication means so much to me

Diane WIlkins in an iron lung

Grant Wilkins’ first wife, Diane, in an iron lung in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Grant Wilkins.

By Grant Wilkins, past RI director and member of the Rotary Club of Denver, Colorado, USA.

In 1951, as a young father of three children ages 5, 2, and 3-months (the youngest born prematurely and still in the hospital), I contracted Bulbar Polio.

My throat and vocal cords were paralyzed, and I couldn’t talk or swallow. A tracheotomy and intravenous feedings kept me alive for two weeks until the paralysis started letting up.

My wife came to visit me for the first time after those two weeks, and mentioned she wasn’t feeling well. A spinal tap found she had the Lumbar Polio virus, and she was immediately admitted to the polio ward. Within 24 hours, she was completely paralyzed from the neck down and could not breathe on her own.

I recovered from the virus within a few months following voice lessons, therapy, etc. But my wife remained in an iron lung for two and a half years. In 1954, a chest respirator was invented that helped her to breathe, and she was allowed to come home. We built a house equipped with a hospital bed and other medical equipment, and hired an around the clock nurse to help care for her.

She never regained any movement, but was able to breathe and talk when her respirator worked. Power failures caused anxious moments many times during the 13 years she lived after contacting polio. Our three children grew up with a mother who couldn’t do anything physical for them, but gave them vocal guidance the best that she could. She couldn’t hug them, feed them, go to school with them, dress them. They learned how to help with their mother every day, as well as help me with daily chores.

Polio is a horrible and devastating disease which can ruin individual lives and greatly impact the lives of families.

Through Rotary’s Polio Plus program launched in 1985, I have been able to be active in a worldwide effort to eradicate this dreaded disease from our planet. It is an historic endeavor and the U.S. Congress has been a leader through contributions of over US$2 billion to the cause. Rotary International’s investment exceeds $1 billion, with additional funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other governments.

Of course, this program would not have been possible without the technical oversight of the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF. I am also proud to say that my Denver Rotary Club is among the clubs that have contributed the most toward polio eradication. 

Wilkins’ post first appeared on Rotary Voices in April 2012, and received a gold 2013 EXCEL award. Find out how you can make a difference on World Polio Day 24 October by:

12 thoughts on “Why polio eradication means so much to me

  1. Can you picture, in your mind, a crowd of 7 million childen? That’s the approximate number children who have been spared the paralysis of Polio by the campaign we call PolioPlus! Terry Ziegler, District 5890 PolioPlus Chair

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  2. It breaks my heart to read about your wife – yet you find comfort in the life you shared and that gives me heart. I, too, contracted polio at age 2 1/2 years and, although able to function fairly normally, have felt its effects my whole life. I became a Rotarian the moment I heard about Polio Plus and have been a staunch supporter ever since. Thanks for sharing your life with us all as we struggle to clean up the last bits of this horrible didease.

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  6. Kudos to the work done in district 7470 lead by Rotarian Karien Ziegler. The Rotary Club of the Caldwells applauds the efforts of all Rotarians for fighting the good fight toward a polio-free world.

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  7. Thank you so much for the work you are continuing to do. I will always support Rotary’s efforts to eradicate Polio. My Mother suffered it for ten years when I was growing up. She survived it too but it is the defining event in my sisters and my life. Mom lived to be 94 and worked so hard at her health once she got out of bed (over polio). She walked five miles everyday for years and swam as exercise in the warmer months but it could not keep post polio syndrome from attacking and lodging in her vocal chords. Although this was a nuisance to her, it was not the devastating disease that had struck her when she was so young and with a young family. She was a real fighter, was aware of all Rotary was doing to get Polio off the planet and she was a real inspiration to my sister and me.

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  12. Your story of Bulbar polio brings back the memory of my brother who contracted the disease in 1953. He was 12 years old and I was 6. Walter spent 1 year in a contagious disease hospital and then was able to come home. He regained his use of legs and voice but his arms, neck and breathing never returned. He went through the tracheotomy and 2 years of emotional and physical distress. I watched from the side lines as my hero went through hell. We turned our dining room into a hospital complete with the iron lung, hospital bed, etc. I remember how scary power outages were. Walter died in 1955 after a brave struggle. I have pictures to remind me it wasn’t a bad dream or a movie. Although I was only 8 when he died, his death affected me until this day. My poor mother and father went through hell. I don’t know how they stood it. But they did and I had a wonderful childhood. Walter was always apart of our life. Most people don’t even know what polio is or what went on in those early year; I pray to God that the world can get rid of it forever.

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