THE FALL OF 1959 SAW ME HEADED to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. I had only applied to two colleges. Williams was my first choice, but they passed on me. Union was a good fit for me. I joined a fraternity, where I learned how to catch a football,
throw a baseball over hand for strikes, and party. I also received a very good education.
Since childhood I wanted to be a doctor. My father’s office was in our house. I’d watch patients come and go at all hours of the day.
I’d even made some house calls with him at night. He tried to discourage me. Others told me I’d never be able to be a doctor. By the first quarter of my freshman year, I decided to try. My grades were four D’s and a C. I had missed
three weeks with mononucleosis. Premed chairman, Leonard Clark, supposedly would not consider anyone who did not have a B average. He could not have been nicer. “We have doctors from three different medical schools coming to interview our seniors
for admission and I’ll have them give you their opinion.” They were unanimous, “Do not bother to try. You’ll never make it.” When they left, Dr. Clark looked at me, “Well Dick, you might as well try. If you do not
make it, at least you will have had a good education.” What a wonderful man—the only person besides my mother who made me feel I could do it.
Mom took no chances. Once I was doing well in premed at Union, she made an appointment
to see Dr. Wolf, the dean of the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Fortunately, Dr. James Wallace had just finished four years of medical school at UVM and was doing an internship there. He had congenital absence of his left hand and forearm.
Dr. Wolf had Mom and me meet him. He was very upbeat and encouraging. Years later I had the honor of covering his oncology patients at Rutland Hospital while he was on vacations.
Shortly after I had started medical school at UVM in the
fall of 1963, Dr. Bell and I bumped into each other between classes. Ever the physician, after a brief “hello’’ he started examining my right arm while we were standing on the sidewalk with people passing by. Dr. Bell knew a polio
specialist, Dr. Goldstein, at Johns Hopkins and referred me there. I did not want to go but could not say no to a man who had done so much for my parents and me. Johns Hopkins and Dr. Goldstein had nothing new to offer.
Monty was still
a physical therapist at Mary Fletcher. It was good to get reacquainted. She was very proud of the scared eight-year-old she nursed through events that changed his life in 1949. Fortunately, I had a chance to tell her how vital she had been for my
Medical school, 1963 to 1967, was a great experience that professionally would be hard to top. It was a dream come true. There were 50 people in our class, of which seven were women. That gender discrimination has subsequently been corrected,
at least as far as current admissions apply. We got along well, studied together, and played together. Freshman anatomy lab lasted four hours a day, five days a week. Fridays, after anatomy, many of us headed for The Mill, a bar in downtown Winooski,
to unwind. I still faced at least one more skeptic. OB/ GYN was a required rotation. The department chairman called me to his office a few days before my rotation was to begin. He told me I’d never be able to deliver a baby and not to show up.
To add insult to injury, he asked if I was able to take blood pressures. I got the message and spent the month at Harlem Hospital in New York. Rotating through Harlem’s gynecology ward and emergency room and going to Lincoln Center in Manhattan
for ballet, opera, and the New York Philharmonic was quite an experience. I should have thanked UVM’s OB/ GYN chairman. Ironically, my highest score in the National Board exam was in a course I never took, OB/GYN. Subsequently, I delivered a
baby, and did an appendectomy, with guidance and help from the attending. I have done several arterial blood draws, spinal taps, thoracenteses, sigmoidoscopies, and a very few intra cardiac epinephrine injections. I never was able to intubate and
never tried to put anyone through that learning curve. Some things do require two hands.
My recovery, in fact, has not been complete. It remains uncomfortable for me to look at pictures of myself before polio or to see current pictures
showing my deformed right arm and shoulder. I was at least 16 years old before I stopped wearing long sleeve shirts in the summer in public.
My handicap sometimes frustrates me and makes me feel vulnerable, such as when climbing. People
often underestimate what I can do, such as swimming, driving, shooting pool and skeet, playing Ping-Pong and tennis. Conversely, they are oblivious to the many small daily things I struggle with, for example, undoing a wrapped pad of butter, getting
peanut butter or jelly from the bottom of the jar, peeling vegetables, coming to a closed door with anything in my hand, etc. Yet, this does not make me angry or bitter. My polio was a random event. There is much I can do and am very grateful for.
I really enjoy my life.
Occasionally I have felt marginalized because of my disability. More often, I now realize that mainly occurs if I allow myself to think that way. If I believe I am being marginalized, I will be, just as if one believes
she/he can’t do something, one will not succeed. We all fail often. The real failure is in not trying.
There is satisfaction in doing something you have been told you will not be able to do. However, the real reason for attempting
to do something is not “to prove the bastards wrong,” but because of the challenge of doing what you want. I believe most doubters are not negative or malicious. They are only viewing circumstances through their own prism.
am very fortunate to have the letters Mom wrote to Dad the summers of 1949 and 1950. I also have letters grandparents and others wrote to them. Our daughter, Christina, interviewed my sister in 2004 about her recollections of my polio. This recorded
CD was quite helpful. I did not realize how many people my polio impacted, how long my physical and emotional recovery took, or how many people provided me with support. When people tell me what a remarkable job I’ve done, I know it could not
have been done without the support of so many.
I always knew Mom had grit and humor. Her letters and those of others from that time period reinforce that. It was nice to read in her letters how much she loved my father, missed him when
he was not there, and was an emotional support to him. More than one person wrote, “Alice is a brick.”
We now have an opioid epidemic that kills 175 people daily, most of them adolescents and young adults, not counting the large
numbers who become so depressed they choose suicide, often by gunshot. This is much more deadly and devastating than the polio epidemics. Kathy and I lost our 26-year-old son, Andrew, to this scourge in 2001.
I retired in January 2018
after 46 years of practicing internal medicine in Brandon and the Rutland Hospital, including the hospital practice of critical care medicine. Feeling the need to contribute, I do part-time addiction therapy at an addiction clinic in Rutland. It is
rewarding. A 21-year-old woman seeing me for the first time for Suboxone therapy asked, “What’s a matter with you hand?”
“Polio,” I replied.
“What is polio?” I gave her a brief answer.
“Holy f---! The whole arm?”
“Holy f---! Can you move it?”
“Holy f---! Does it have any feeling?”
“Holy shit!” That was an icebreaker. We got along fine.
While I was studying neurology in London in 1970, an Englishman asked me, “What happened to your arm?” “Polio,” I said. “Oh, wretched
bad luck!” was his spontaneous reply, a typically English response that was matter of fact and right on. I loved it. In the end, one has to play the cards one is dealt. This is done best with perseverance, humor, and grace.
By John Dick, M.D.'67