Harry Donahue Jr. is a longtime KYW News-radio anchor and is a First Tee partner and advocate. He hosts Inside Golf and is the voice of Temple University Football/Basketball.
The New Polio: What Would Mom and Dad Have Done? By Harry Donahue Jr.
I wish my parents were alive right now. So that I could hear all about the decisions they had to make, the fears they experienced and the trust they had in medical professionals when I was diagnosed with Poliomyelitis in 1950. At the time there was no vaccine. The number of cases in Philadelphia that year was the highest in history. There was no explanation as to why I got it but my older brother did not. I still have memories of lying in a bed in Philadelphia’s Municipal Hospital. My parents were allowed brief visitations over the course of the month I was there. They and my brother were under a semi-quarantine in our home as I lay in that hospital room with as many as four other children who had been diagnosed with the virus. I vividly recall when they would bring with them toys and stuffed animals. I even remember them waving goodbye to me when their visits would end. And sometimes one or two of the older children in the room would try to get my attention by calling me a “dumbbell”. Chalk it up as my first experience with bullying.
I never got the chance to hear in my parent’s own words what it was like for them. Looking back on it, I‘m amazed at their ability to live that experience and carry on. They did have a lot in their favor. They had supportive family members and friends. They trusted their doctors. And above all, they were people of great faith. Thank goodness they did not have the distractions of “doom day” predictions or prognosis from social media and “talking heads”. Somehow, though, even if they did, Betty and Harry Donahue, would have discreetly dismissed such opinions and stayed the course.
When I left the hospital and returned home, I was visited weekly by a physical therapist who put me through a rigorous exercise program while I wore a leg brace that weighed one quarter as much as I did. With the brace removed I did leg pumps on our dining room table trying to restore some muscle mass in my atrophied right calf. With the brace on, the therapist would guide me along a seam in our living room rug trying to maintain balance while walking a straight line. In between visits, my mother would do the same while never displaying a “woe is me” attitude. There wasn’t time for self-pity.
Almost two years later, the brace came off. I could almost walk a straight line. My parents knew I’d never be an Olympic sprinter, but that never discouraged them, and in the process, it did not discourage me. On the contrary, I never heard either of them say “ You can’t do that” or “Why don’t you try something else” whenever I wanted to play stickball, touch football or basketball with neighborhood friends. They normalized every bit of my life. They refused to overprotect me. They were survivors in every way. Children of the depression whose own parents had taken on the loss of jobs and businesses and came out those tunnels ready for the next challenge.
They had scars and they had feared. But they overcame each and everyone in a silent demonstration of hope, trust, and love. That is the legacy of Betty and Harry Donahue and the legacy of thousands like them. We can only pray that their response 70 years ago can inspire today’s generation of parents.
So thanks Mom and Dad for what you did. For guiding me through my Poliovirus experience. Yes, I wish you were here now to share your wisdom and strength. But though you are certainly missed, I have to believe somewhere there are parents just like you. Similar in their own way at being that guiding light to their children, family, and friends.
Your loving son,