By 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.