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Dear Polio

A woman of color wears a leg brace as she sits regally upon a red couch. This image was submitted to accompany a letter written to Polio for Dear Diagnosis: a literary project in narrative medicine.

CONTEXT (from Project Director): Polio is caused by a human enterovirus called the poliovirus. The virus is most often spread by the faecal-oral route. Poliovirus enters through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. Infected individuals shed the virus into the environment for several weeks, where it can spread rapidly through a community, especially in areas of poor sanitation.

In the early 20th century, polio was one of the most feared diseases in industrialized countries, paralyzing hundreds of thousands of children every year. Soon after the introduction of effective vaccines in the 1950s and 1960s, polio was brought under control and practically eliminated as a public health problem in these countries, including the United States. It took somewhat longer for polio to be recognized as a major problem in developing countries, however. In 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began, polio paralyzed more than 1000 children worldwide every day. Since then, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio thanks to the cooperation of more than 200 countries and 20 million volunteers, backed by an international investment of more than US$ 11 billion.

Today, there are only 3 endemic countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. Until poliovirus transmission is interrupted in these countries, all countries remain at risk of importation of polio, especially vulnerable ‘outbreak countries’ with weak public health and immunization services and travel or trade links to endemic countries. Somalia, where this writer was born, and Kenya – where she proceeded to live in a refugee camp until the age of nine; are two commonly identified outbreak countries.

Dear My Dahhhling Girl: Polio

Sometimes I wish I could punch you in the face – my body is perplexed by the dependence of leaning on a crutch. This dependence has messed up my physical structure (poor posture, a need for acupuncture adjustment and deep massage to relieve tensed muscles); all of which I’m working toward. I can’t find the right words to describe how limiting being on crutches and having to wear a 1.5 lb brace and 2 lb lift shoe – is… I ask myself: Without you, WHAT SORT OF PERSON MIGHT I HAVE BEEN? I don’t know WHO, WHAT or WHERE I could have ended up if it weren’t for you. I do know, though, the person I am today and I’ve grown to LOVE and ADMIRE her 🙂

Let’s explore what I think I might have been if it wasn’t for you – my girl, Polio. Maybe, more judgmental with people and situations? Impatient with people and situations? Unaware of cruciality – of a second chance to life? Less mature, due to the absence of life changing, permanent physical limitations? Unappreciative of good days? Perhaps, I wouldn’t even know what ‘good days’ are, because everyday can seem like a struggle with life’s little unexpected stumbles..?

Without you in my life, I might have grown up in my home country – Somalia. My family’s first reason for coming to the States was, after all, to FREE me from you. I might have been a trophy wife of a man with significant social status; who could have been emotionally abusive… Perhaps I’d have been the bearer of 6+ offspring?  A woman without a strong will? A pretty girl, who just wants to please everybody?? 🙁  Pardon the question marks – I am just not sure of the person I truly might have been, if it wasn’t for you – my girl, Polio…  Perhaps, I’d have hiked from Mexico to Canada if I’d managed not to contract you. Perhaps I would be a serial-camper – an outdoors-WO-man? Even better, I’d have taken part in a Dancing With The Stars competition or even could have been one of Beyonce’s back up dancers? Own a dance studio? Be a household dance instructor?? (I clearly long to dance – freely – free dance 🙂

Fast forward to now – the person that I believe you have helped craft: I am resilient, because I feel it in my gut that I have a purpose for this life of mine. Otherwise, you might have taken my life, just as you have taken the lives of so many other children in third world countries. I can’t treat this fact with mediocrity! I choose redemption and conviction of a belief system that cultivates daily my strength and strengthens my weakness, along with the mindset that yesterday’s shortcoming, doesn’t set the tone for today’s goals and absolutely should not interfere with what can be accomplished today.
I’m grateful for you, although you stunted the growth of my leg and confined me to a single crutch, I know life would have been much hardER to cope with, if I was confined to a wheelchair with limited mobility and access to my favorite bars and restaurants (many of which are NOT wheelchair accessible). I also consider myself to be less judgmental on the SELF and others, because you helped me to learn to accept myself – my strengths, my weaknesses, my everything. The good and the bad. .It taught me to meet people where they are at in their own personal journeys.

Thanks to you, I’ve become a seeker of wisdom on self-sufficiency. Determined to be independent – not only in physical function, but of the expectations of others. Standards of society don’t apply to me, I refuse to enforce expectations. I think that you primed me, Polio – I’ve always felt more mature than my peers. I consider myself to be impeccably adaptable, which is probably rooted in my skills to accept and meet myself where I’m at. I am selective with the type of people I bring into my life, the types of conversations I participate in, the types of books I read, the type of music I listen to, the type of food I eat, the type of water and liquid I take into my body, and the type of environment I reside in – all of which are probably influenced by you. I choose to exercise my options because I’ve promised my physical body that I will exercise huge discipline to bring only joy and wisdom into this life that we share… I will honor and protect this body of mine with you at my side – whatever it takes.


Female, Age 30
Poliovirus with Foot drop

Dear Diagnosis Affirmation Key

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1 thought on “Dear Polio”

  1. Your exploration of what you may have had without Polio (Dancing with the Stars! Hiking from Mexico to Canada!) combined with all the other many scenarios that may have played out (living in a different country, perhaps not having as much patience), then winding your way to all the things you have and appreciate, has been a joy and inspiration to read. What a beautiful writing journey.

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