Living with polio for 70 years

Lee holds his cane and stands between four members of his club at the summit
Jong-Geun Lee at the summit of a 3,400-foot peak with members of his Rotary club who took turns carrying him on an A-frame on their backs.

By Jong-Geun Lee, District 3730 PolioPlus subcommittee chair and member of the Rotary Club of Wonju, Korea

I was born in a rural village in southern Korea the year after the Korean War ended. I contracted polio when I was 9 months old. I had a fever for several days and both my legs became paralyzed. My parents were teachers but had little knowledge of polio, so they relied on superstition and prayer to confront my illness. It wasn’t until I was two years old that I was finally diagnosed with polio.

I needed crutches to walk but was a cheerful and active child with many friends in the village. My younger brother carried my bag to school and back. If my classroom was not on the ground floor, my fellow students would carry me up the steps on their backs. At the time, we lived in a rented house on a hill near the school. My friends would carry me home. Even with all this help, I would fall often when my walking device became loose or the crutches caught on something, so I devoted myself to studying.

I wanted to be a doctor so I could treat others like myself. But I could not get accepted to any of the medical schools in my country. People with serious physical disabilities were not allowed to attend at the time. Frustrated and helpless, I laid in bed refusing to eat or drink but eventually decided to pursue a major in architecture.

The road was not easy. I was great with theory, but drawing was a challenge. Because of my crutches, I could not hold a T-square straight, so it was difficult to draw detailed architectural designs with tracing paper on a large drafting board. Frustrated, I thought of quitting, but the dean persuaded me otherwise, noting that “nothing is easy to do.” Later, the parallel ruler helped me keep my lines level.

After college, I got a job with an architectural firm. About this time, I met my wife through a blind date. She had been told by the matchmaker that I was handsome and that I limped in one leg. When I entered the café with crutches on both sides, she knew part of that was not true. But still she thought I was good looking and I spoke well. The next morning, as I was going to work, she called and proposed. She told me later she had decided she couldn’t turn me away, knowing that she could be my hands and feet for the rest of my life. We’ve been married 42 years.

We settled in Wonju city, in the western part of Korea. I wanted to earn my architecture license but because of my difficulty with detailed designs, it took me eight tries to pass the exam. In 1992, I finally opened my own architectural firm.

Lee with Dai Bong Yu
Jong-Geun Lee, right, with Dai-Bong Yu, 2022-23 governor of District 3730, who joined Rotary a month after Lee.

My focus is on creating barrier-free designs without bumps or steps so that anyone with mobility issues can move about comfortably. My designs have handrails and doors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. There are ramps or elevators to reach different floors.

I was introduced to the Rotary Club of Wonju in 2003 by two high school friends who had joined. They mentioned how Rotary is dedicated to eradicating polio. Joining Rotary is one of the best things I have done.

Dai-Bong Yu, who is serving as our district governor in 2022-23, joined the month after I did. He is active and enthusiastic and would tell me “If you’re an architect, you have to go up to the top of a mountain and view the whole city. That way you can design greater buildings for our community.” One spring day, he invited me out without telling me why, and 20 members of the club met me with an A-frame to take turns carrying me on their back up a 1,043-meter (about 3,400-foot) peak. I knew it was not an easy job because I could hear their labored breathing. Tears poured down my cheeks as I was moved by their deep display of fellowship.

Since then, I have served as president of my club in 2013-14 and now as district PolioPlus subcommittee chair. When asked why eradicating polio is so important, I tell people that I do not want others to have to suffer the way I had to from this disease. There are many diseases that cause disability. But polio is preventable with a vaccine.

To this day, I still have no peace of mind when I walk. I’m always nervous I might get caught on something or that my walking device might come loose and fall apart. We must do our best to eradicate this disease so that no one will be paralyzed by this virus ever again.

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