Survivors Speak: Sandy Rutherford, Chair, Thunder Bay & District Post-Polio Chapter.
I contracted polio at the tender age of six months. A good deal of my childhood was spent in hospital. One particular memory haunts me terribly to this day. I think I was two or two and a half. I’m pinned from hip to toe in a blanket of rock-hard plaster. I’m sobbing and grasping onto the metal bars of my crib trying to stand up. Somebody, and not my mommy, rushes in, flings a massive curtain around me, and then disappears as the door slams shut behind her. This heightened my hollering “Where’s my mommy and why can’t she hear me!” That could have been when I discovered just how soothing my thumb was; it sure shut me up, much to the relief of those within earshot.
As children do they adapt to their surroundings, and I did too. Having too many surgeries to count, I would progress from a metal back and leg braces and crutches, to walking unaided and then graduate to one foot brace on my polio leg with crutches, until I rebelled and threw them all into the closet. It was hard trekking but I was bent on breaking out and being fashionable. At eighteen I was working, and wearing shoes of my own choosing. I had at least a dozen pairs and some with heels. Would I admit that a too-high-for-me heel was risky? Nope!!
Freedom was mine until 1979 when I was back under the knife. Born with both of my hips dislocated, it was their time for fixin’ and for a gal whose ultimate dream was walking limp-free, I was up to the challenge. After a series of surgeries, grueling rehab, and then a walk down the aisle? Yep! Not limp-free, (turned out that wasn’t to be), but donning a dazzling gown, with foot brace on my polio leg, crutches, and my dad and brother on either side, ambled to my beloved groom.
In 1984 we welcomed our darling daughter. My hips had collapsed from a 50-pound weight gain during pregnancy. Using the wheelchair was a blessing as I was better able to mother from my chair. Just to stand up was excruciatingly painful and walking with crutches was too exhausting. Total hip replacements two years later would have me using a foot brace and crutches aptly named “grace” and “mercy”. Being a woman of faith I am ever mindful of where my strength arises.
I’d gotten pretty nifty at maneuvering around the house with just my “mercy” crutch. The early 1990’s found me falling a lot, so to avoid any broken bones, “grace” was needed as well to keep my face off the floor.
Married life would end in the divorce court, yet amid all that emotionally-shattered brokenness, I focused on the precious child I am blessed to love and provide for. My secretarial skills were then obsolete, so I seek out a vocational rehab program that happened to be housed at the March of Dimes office in Thunder Bay. I hadn’t thought about March of Dimes or even polio as being of any importance since the Salk vaccine. Nor did I consider polio as the culprit depleting me of energy so fast that I couldn’t keep up with the day to day, let alone work a job outside the home. I was only in my forties, for crying out loud, so why couldn’t I bounce back like I used to whenever life threw a curve ball?
Well, long story short, I flunked work-rehab, but before leaving that last day’s session, I rescued a pamphlet that was headed for the floor. Talk about a God-send when you’re at the end of your rope. The words on that pamphlet “Post-polio Syndrome?” had me betwixt relief and angst. Who’d a thought that a quick read would incite an arsenal of goose bumps racing down my back whilst a wave of terror explodes like sparklers from my head to the pit of my stomach! Then denial erupted and well, I lost it. Talk about a flood of tears. Polio?? – No!! No way!! I’d licked that sucker long ago, thank you very much.
Truth be told, it is I who got suckered by this crippler I’d fought tooth and nail to keep as my history of yesteryear. And I wasn’t the only one. That brochure directed me to a group of polio survivors who would welcome me with support and the freedom to not only ask the hard questions but help me to find answers.
There have been countless meetings since then, but that first meeting was one of the hardest reality checks I’ve ever had to face, which is probably why when in 2005, I readily volunteered to serve the Thunder Bay & District Post-polio Chapter as their Chairperson - A real stretch for a gal who much prefers working behind the scenes.
And that polio history I wanted to keep in yesteryear?? Well, turns out that our Chapter’s focus is on remembering and educating our Northwestern Ontario communities about a disease that must not be forgotten. Time and again, history has this uncanny way of repeating itself when we discount its experiences. It is also important that March of Dimes be recognized for its crucial significance in coming alongside polio survivors, now in another fight with Post-polio Syndrome.
So together we, March of Dimes’ Thunder Bay & District Post-polio Chapter, are well on our way in making an indelible mark in Northwestern Ontario with:
- The unveiling of a memorial plaque on August 27, 2009, honouring the Port Arthur Isolation Hospital, which housed several polio survivors, many of whom were in attendance, along with our special guest Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, David C. Onley. Having His Honour join us was a dream come true for me, as he too is a polio survivor.
- Our first-ever polio display at Thunder Bay Historical Museum from October to November, 2009, featuring an iron lung, memorabilia from chapter members, and our very own March of Dimes original Marching Mother, Mrs. Saara Suni.
- Our Chapter’s documentary (thanks to the unique skill of the Confederation College Film Production Department) and aptly titled “Faces of Polio” will be ready for viewing.
- Book compilation is ongoing; we are well on our way with several of our members on board.
Chapter accomplishments would not be possible without our precious men and women who are willing to share their lives and stories of courage and grit. A humungous thank you to them and to my good friend and teammate - March of Dimes staffer Todd Kennedy, whose dedication to our group and his patience with this ole gal is appreciated so very much.