He loved his life. Stationed in Alaska as a member of the U.S. Air Force, he was assigned to the Office of Special Investigations. Proud of the work he was doing, his wife and three small children, the youngest just six months old, lived on the Air Force base with him. He planned to spend his career in the military.
Then, in 1955, life changed forever when his body was attacked by the polio virus. Paralyzed from the waist down, he was flown to Walter Reed Hospital where he was told he would never walk again. His military career was over. What was he going to do with a wife and three small children? How would he face the physical challenges ahead of him?
Fighting hard, with time he regained his ability to walk, though left with a post-polio syndrome gait, and moved his family to Maine where his in-laws lived to accept a job working at his father-in-law’s lumber mill. Being forced to move on from the career he so loved with the Air Force was heartbreaking and he found work at the mill intolerable. Eventually, he struck out on his own becoming a successful entrepreneur in insurance and real estate.
Though he accomplished much in his life, he became bitter and angry at all polio had taken from him: The military career he longed for; the ability to do things with his children (now numbering six) that other fathers could do; the trajectory of his life so drastically altered by a terrible disease. His life ended at the age of 67 when he suffered a massive heart attack.
I am sharing his story not as a political statement but as a daughter wondering what life for my father and our family would have been like if the polio vaccine had been invented in 1954 instead of 1955. How would our lives have been different if my father had been able to receive the vaccine against the disease? But in 1955 the vaccine was only just becoming available and so he had no immunity to polio. Instead, he contacted the disease which left him an angry and bitter man watching his children swim and run and play from the sidelines while shouldering his sadness and anger and disappointment.
What would Dad have been like as a father had he not contracted polio? What if Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine just a year or two earlier? I have seen firsthand how an infectious disease can wreak havoc on a human life. We will all face the choice of whether to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. I wish I had known a dad who had not contracted polio. I wish for him, for my mom, for my siblings and yes, for myself, that our life together had been different.