By Nancy Wright Beasley, a polio survivor and member of the Rotary Club of Brandermill, Virginia, USA
I thought I’d never walk again, but I did.
I thought I’d never talk about polio either, but I’ve regularly shared my childhood memories of the disease since joining the Rotary Club of Brandermill in 2005. I had been invited to speak about my first book, Izzy’s Fire. That’s where I first learned about PolioPlus, and decided — that day — to join Rotary International’s fight to eradicate the disease. I often say that I’m the only speaker who gave a speech then never left.
I contracted polio in the summer of 1952, in the middle of one of the worst epidemics in U.S. history.
Some 60,000 people nationwide were infected, killing 3,000 and paralyzing 21,000 others. My brother still remembers the summer day when he found me, the youngest of four children, unconscious under a snowball bush just beside our farm house in Christiansburg, Virginia.
A spinal tap at Roanoke’s Memorial and Crippled Children’s Hospital confirmed a diagnosis of polio. At 6, I had never spent a night away from my family, but I was isolated in a sterile room, seen only by medical personnel swathed in gowns and masks. I cried with joy the first time a nurse wheeled me into the sunroom where my mother placed her hand on a glass partition opposite mine. A prisoner of polio —I talked to her by telephone.
When I was released months later, my parents were told I’d never walk again. Mama refused to accept that. She chopped wood to heat the water she lugged uphill from the springhouse, lowering me into a steaming tub and exercising my body beyond exhaustion. I’m fairly sure a home health nurse demonstrated the exercises, trying to stave off muscular atrophy in my legs. For months, Mama followed this routine twice a day, while acting as my substitute teacher; caring for my siblings, my father and grandfather; and helping with farm chores. With tears in his eyes, Daddy used to tell how Mama was so worried about me that he found her one day sitting on the bucket beside a cow and milking onto the stool.
Her hard work paid off — I eventually began to walk again, and though I had missed most of second grade except the last two months, I passed with flying colors.
My brother still remembers the summer day when he found me, the youngest of four children, unconscious under a snowball bush just beside our farm house in Christiansburg, Virginia.
I gleaned two important lessons from that experience: I never take walking for granted, and I approach difficult tasks as challenges to be overcome. When my third book, The Little Lion, was adapted for the stage by playwright Irene Ziegler, the world premiere was held at Swift Creek Mill Theatre in South Chesterfield, Virginia, in January. I approached Tom Width, director of the Mill, as well as the play’s artistic director, and he agreed to assist in a fundraiser for PolioPlus. Brandermill Rotarians joined with me to “Fill the Mill for PolioPlus” on 20 February 2016. Students, friends and Rotarians purchased tickets, some coming from as far away as New Jersey to help support the project, raising $4,512 for PolioPlus.
DeJa View, a Richmond, Virginia, club whose members are polio survivors, was one of the welcoming audiences. The vast majority of members are physically compromised, and some have been stricken with post-polio syndrome. That didn’t’ dampen their spirits, and one member managed to sell 13 tickets for the show. Several sent donations, even though they couldn’t attend.
They, and the many individuals who helped, have inspired me to help carry RI’s task to the finish line. After all, “We’re this close.”
Beasley is available to speak to Rotary Clubs about her experience with polio and the books that she has written. She donates a portion of proceeds from her books to PolioPlus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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