Traveling down a rough road with polio

131107_birdBy Patrick J. Bird, polio survivor and author of A Rough Road

During the polio epidemic of 1940, I contracted polio and became ensconced for 19 months in a “reconstruction home” far from my family. I was only 4 years old, and since all the other children were at least twice my age, I was initially placed in a room by myself instead of one of the dormitories.

Enduring loneliness, painful treatments, and lengthy, frustrating rehabilitation sessions, I learned to overcome my fears and to prevail physically and emotionally through my interactions with a colorful cast of hospital staff. There was the friendly giant orderly Johnny Cant and the lighthearted Nurse Kelly. They were joined by the no-nonsense physical therapist Ma Gillick, an evangelical swimming instructor Mr. Cooney, and the imposing and frightening Dr. Strasburg and his mean assistant Nurse McCormick.

Perhaps most important to my “reconstruction” however, was the arrival of roommate Joey. An adventure loving, bedridden youngster with spina bifida three years my senior, Joey introduced me to the joys and tomfoolery of boyhood and inspired me with his physical and mental toughness. There were  infrequent — but significant — visits from my mom, who was sure the Blessed Virgin would cure me, and my pop, who feared in his heart that he would have a cripple for a son.

My rough road ended the day I left the home, more than 70 years ago. I arrived home in New York City with a strong right leg but atrophied left leg. Think of a baseball bat with a bulbous knot, my knee, and a small floppy foot stuck to the end. In spite of this, I’ve had a full life. I competed in gymnastics, winning the Big Ten championship at the University of Illinois, where I attended on an athletic scholarship. I earned a bachelors and masters at Illinois, and then a doctorate from Minnesota, coaching gymnastics at both schools. I married, had three children, and am now a retired Dean Emeritus from the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida.

It’s sad to think that so many children in pockets around the world are being crippled by this preventable disease. Through the fantastically successful efforts of Rotary and its partners, we can and  will end this disease soon.

8 thoughts on “Traveling down a rough road with polio

  1. Pingback: Traveling down a rough road with polio | Warsaw Rotary , Club 3393, District 6540

  2. Pingback: Today’s Links | Rotary International District 3040

  3. An inspiring story,goes on to prove that physical handicaps are nothing and can be overcome with determination .It’s the mental blocks people suffer from are the cause of miseries and social ills

  4. My mom contracted polio in 1940 in Seattle. She was six years old. She has wanted me to write her story for years now. I think that I am going to do it as a Christmas present. I plan to buy a beautiful velvet lined box and place the manuscript in it. Along with a copy of it on a disk. she has a Publisher that thinks that if it is put in a book form he may be able to get some interest. I’ve been researching the epidemic and found your blog. You are a wonderful writer! I hope you write more!
    Diane

  5. Thank you Kurt. I read your story on ABC news this morning, then finding this site. I was 2 1/2 in 1958 when I was diagnosed after about 6 weeks of doctors scratching their heads. My parents traveled to Scott & White Hospital in Temple, Tx. As they were checking in a doctor passed the counter and immediately said ‘polio’. My mother got mad at him and told him to get his hands off me. Guess which doctor walked in the room? Dr. H.H. Brindley, Sr. I remember all the p.t. staff, the doctors and many nurses. Dr. Brindley after several surgeries worked his magic when I was 19. With many years of barely limping, many people never knew what was under my jeans (left leg). But now, the limping is showing up more but that is ok, I have always thought of myself as the most blessed polio survivor ever. Most importantly, the day you asked ‘why me’ was the same response as my mother. I never asked again. So from someone that remembers the pain of the muscles dying and the metal braces, I finally feel connected to someone else. Thank you for your story at this time so I remember to be thankful even more to my mother (of 9 kids) and to Dr. Brindley (RIP).
    Sue Green, Austin, Tx

  6. I will be checking on your book tomorrow. I also published a book in 2012. “All The Steps I Have Taken” Every step I took was after my legs were weakened by polio. I stared walking with braces on both legs and crutches for support at age 2 1/2. My years 16-36 were braces free. Now at age 66 (In Feb 2014) I need the support of a cane most of the day while wearing a long leg left brace. Crutches in the evening after I take the brace off. My professional career consisted of 42 years as a Registered Dental assistant. I have enjoyed 44 years of marriage with a wonderful understanding man and together we raised 3 children and now enjoy 8 grandchildren. My life has been complete. My story has taken me to many churches and schools to talk about challenges and that one can go above and beyond even with limitations. I look forward to reading you story.
    It has been great to find many polio survivors and learn their story. Everyone has one. Just some share. Merry Christmas.

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