A broken back, polio and the test of character

When I was growing up in the 1940’s, come summertime, my mother wouldn’t let me swim in public swimming pools or go to the beach at the neighborhood pond.

Of course, I thought this was horribly unfair. But she had a very good reason, one that may not be familiar to anyone under age 60: Polio.

Also known as infantile paralysis, polio is an incurable viral disease that often leaves those infected ‒ frequently children ‒ with lasting paralysis in their limbs, even their lungs. The infection was thought to spread through the water, which is why for years there was no summer swimming for me and thousands of other kids.

Indeed, for years, the threat of polio was what terrified American mothers the most. A child coming down with an unexpected and unexplained fever was cause for enormous family alarm. Then came one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical history, announced right here at the University of Michigan.

On April 12, 1955 at the Rackham Auditorium, the world learned that a “safe, effective and potent” polio vaccine had been developed. Dr. Thomas Francis, head of the epidemiology department at the newly formed School of Public Health and later the director of the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, made the announcement to a jam-packed audience.

Among those present was his colleague, Dr. Jonas Salk, who actually developed the vaccine. I was a junior in high school at that time and was there. I listened in amazement as the speakers told the story: More than 1.8 million children participated in the field trials that validated the safe use of the Salk vaccine; $17.5 million was spent on the field trials; data were collected from the U.S., Canada and Finland; 20,000 physicians took part in the research.

Polio had been effectively vanquished.

The event left me convinced that medical science, properly organized and focused, fully funded and in the public interest, was and is one of the shining achievements of America.

Recent sharp cuts in federal funding for the National Science Foundation and other basic research efforts led me to more than wonder about the priorities of our leaders in Washington.

Years after the vaccine was announced, that memory triggered my enthusiasm for “The Man He Became,” a book which chronicles Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infection with polio, which struck him at age 39, and his long and exhausting struggles literally to learn to stand and walk again, right through his eventual election as President.

Ann Arbor-based author James Tobin, a former Detroit News reporter, has written a psychologically acute account of how Roosevelt’s struggles to overcome his adversity forged a new, stronger, deeper person out of the ambitious and aristocratic scion of a famous family.

In his play, “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare wrote:

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”

Roosevelt internalized his long struggle to cope with the terrible effects of polio by realizing there were countless others who needed help. He bought and developed at Warm Springs, Georgia a resort devoted to the most advanced treatments for polio. Over the years, he developed a capacity for empathy, learning to reach beyond the boundaries of his aristocratic family upbringing.

That ultimately resulted in a profound character change that re-made Roosevelt into the warm, popular figure known to millions. Tobin concludes FDR became president less in spite of polio than because of polio ‒ and chronicles how he was shaped by the disease.

In my own life, I’ve experienced adversity, but nothing like what FDR went through. I broke my back when I was 18, which required a spinal fusion. As I lay in my hospital bed, hurting and feeling very sorry for myself, I looked out the door to see a patient with both arms amputated, being rolled past in a wheelchair.

“Now there’s somebody who’s really badly off,” I thought to myself. I gritted my teeth, rolled out of bed and went over to talk. And I realized that the guy in the wheelchair was far braver than I, far more able to accommodate to his dire condition and far more courageous in facing his future. I never forgot that encounter, and when I read “The Man He Became,” it all came back to me movingly.

The uses of adversity are many and powerful: to provide a sense of proportion, a spur for personal courage and humility, a better sense of membership in the entire human condition.

With so many posturing ‒ dare I say, narcissistic? ‒ aspiring national leaders running around these days, it would be interesting to know what sort of adversity each has faced. It might be even more telling to learn how they responded to and were shaped by it.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 04/21/2015 - 8:46am
Two observations; Sometime in the late 40s Professor A. Martin Lerner MD, then (I believe) at Harvard, found a way to infect rats with polio. He forced some of the infected rats to swim around inside a bucket of water, and it was these rats that developed hind limb paralysis. From this experiment upscale and progressive parents concluded that it might be dangerous to swim during the summer when polio was transmitted. (My parents were poor and this peasant swam on hot days; damn the theories.) Lerner later became Chair of Medicine at Wayne State Med and may still be practicing in the Detroit area for all I know. Also, there was a group of ladies in Grand Rapids were having lunch one day when they discovered that they were all named "Mary" and decided on the spot, to form a guild of Marys. Eventually they also accepted Gerties and Emilies. The guild dedicated itself to sponsoring the medical care of an indigent in one of the hospitals, the Mary Free Bed. In the course of time, the Marys volunteered to help care for patients who had been paralyzed with polio during the summer time epidemics by working the old iron lungs and massaging and exercising flaccid limbs. This volunteerism by otherwise prosperous and charitable women evolved into support for professionals caring for the disabled, now Mary Free Bed Hospital in Grand Rapids, the 5th largest rehab hospital and one of the finest in the country.
John Nash
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 10:05am
Phil, again like to so many previous times you have proved your insight, compassion and understanding. Congratulations also to you and your Bridge Staff for your recent awards. The Bridges is truly a beautiful, honest, thought provoking journal to truly help Michigan. Your goal is clear and you are achieving it. John Nash
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 10:34am
This is such a good article - I hope it gets wide distribution. Fits right into David Brooks' effort (now a book he is promoting) on this topic. And you quite rightly note that the political posturing we endure these days can't stand up to the example of courage, and learning from adversity, that FDR offered. You as well, we learn - it's sometimes when we feel the sorriest for ourselves that we notice that there's learning there, and lessons to be gained from others. As always, you have a relevant and worthy topic. Thanks.
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/21/2015 - 1:12pm
It is all well and good to say, "Recent sharp cuts in federal funding for the National Science Foundation and other basic research efforts led me to more than wonder about the priorities of our leaders in Washington." But don't those priorities reflect the priorities of their constituents, we the voters? Robert Samuelson, of the Washington Post, has written extensively of the crowding out of valuable government functions by the inexorable expansion of entitlements, particularly middle class entitlements that benefit us senior citizens. He points out that the elderly, contrary to popular opinion, are, as a group, doing quite well. Mr. Power speaks of the value of adversity and intimates that "aspiring national leaders" are "narcissistic" and "posturing," but doesn't say anything about the possible need for the citizens to face some adversity. If we, the voters set priorities, our leaders will follow.
Wed, 04/22/2015 - 7:08pm
There is no doubt of what Mr. Roosevelt had to overcome and what he achieved with the strength the adversity built in him. As that reminded Mr. Power of a past encounter with someone who was dealing with a future full of adversity had built strength to deal with adversity. If Mr. Roosevelt had not had the adversity would he have risen to such heights and have had the impact on the world? Did the world indirectly benefit from his adversity and the strength it built? How many others build strength form their adversity and does that strength the rest of us? If adversity builds such strength that benefit others then should we try to eliminate adversity or should we mitigation of adversity? Consider those around you, what adversity have they had and did they build a strength dealing with? Should we rob peopleof the opportunity to build strength that will give them a better life and have a positive impact on many others? Should we try you manage adversity and allow people to choose and create their own lives? Do you consider more than just what Mr. Power writes about or do you look beyond that person and situation and see how it may affect other issues in our community? How much is it costing us to eliminate adversity when it could be the stepping stop for people like President Franklin Roosevelt to change the world? Might it be wiser to mitigate adversity so it is not as severe and more effectively use our limited resources to help others build a strength that can help themsleves and others?
hank meijer
Thu, 04/23/2015 - 10:00pm
Phil, A terrific column! Thanks