Why Congress’ support for polio eradication means so much to me

By Grant Wilkins, past RI director and member of the Rotary Club of Denver, Colorado. This piece was originally posted on the Rotary Voices blog.

In 1951, as a young father of three children ages 5, 2 and 3 months (the youngest born prematurely and still in the hospital), I contracted Bulbar Polio.

My throat and vocal cords were paralyzed, and I couldn’t talk or swallow. A tracheotomy and intravenous feedings kept me alive for two weeks until the paralysis started letting up.

My wife came to visit me for the first time after those two weeks, and mentioned she wasn’t feeling well. A spinal tap found she had the Lumbar Polio virus, and she was immediately admitted to the polio ward. Within 24 hours, she was completely paralyzed from the neck down and could not breathe on her own.

Photo caption: Grant’s wife in an iron lung

I recovered from the virus within a few months following voice lessons, therapy, etc. But my wife remained in an iron lung for two and a half years. In 1954, a chest respirator was invented that helped her to breathe, and she was allowed to come home. We built a house equipped with a hospital bed and other medical equipment, and hired an around-the-clock nurse to help care for her.

She never regained any movement, but was able to breathe and talk when her respirator worked. Power failures caused anxious moments many times during the 13 years she lived after contacting polio. Our three children grew up with a mother who couldn’t do anything physical for them, but gave them vocal guidance the best that she could. She couldn’t hug them, feed them, go to school with them, dress them. They learned how to help with their mother every day, as well as help me with daily chores.

Polio is a horrible and devastating disease which can ruin individual lives and greatly impact the lives of families.

Through Rotary’s Polio Plus program launched in 1985, I have been able to be active in a worldwide effort to eradicate this dreaded disease from our planet. It is an historic endeavor and the U.S. Congress has been a leader through contributions of over US$2 billion to the cause. Rotary International’s investment exceeds $1 billion, with additional funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and many other governments.

Of course, this program would not have been possible without the technical oversight of the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF. I am also proud to say that my Denver Rotary Club is among the clubs that have contributed the most toward polio eradication.

Grant Wilkins is a member of Rotary’s Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force for the United States, which works to encourage the leadership of the US Government to support polio eradication. This week, Wilkins attended the 2012 reception to recognize Congressional Champions of Polio Eradication held in the US Capitol on 24 April.

Why is polio eradication important to you? Tell us below.