Why polio? Bill Gates, in his hour long interview with Charlie Rose this week, recounted why he had chosen polio as the #1 disease in the world to eliminate: 1) it saves kids, 2) it is possible to raise the money to do it, and 3) it will prove that global health can improve the quality of all our lives. He explained with sincere passion that as families in poor countries experience more of their children surviving childhood illnesses they will have fewer children, the surviving children will have higher IQ’s, (from 80 to 100, statistically) and from a human and environmental prospective our world will improve.
So on with the story of a survivor whose body but not IQ was afffected, my old friend Helen. In Russian tradition, a girl child receives her father’s first name as her middle name, which identifies her evermore as his child, thus Helen Kravetzky bears the name Helen Eugenia, after her father Eugene. (It make me, the writer, wonder how I would have turned out with the feminine of Augustus, my own father, had I been born Russian rather than English and cowboy? Would I have developed a different personality as Bonnie Augustina rather than Bonnie Eloise, belle of the Mohawk Vale?)
When polio first struck, the young immigrant family was predictably distraught. All they knew was that their precious baby girl was in bed with a bad fever, and they were alone in a strange land with few resources. Might she die? A Russian doctor was summoned from San Francisco to diagnose her. Helen’s mother Ludmila, who had been teaching piano for extra income, went to pieces. One must remember that the young Ludmilla was a romantic as well as dramatic. Eugene was forced to quit Cal. It seemed like their world came crashing down. Helen was fitted at the Shrine hospital with many braces and other apparatus. The brace on her left leg came all the way to her hip, and even so she walked on the side of her foot. It was explained to the family that she would need surgery as a teenager to correct this. (It did, but one leg is shorter.)
Yet, here they were in a great new country whose president, FDR, was himself a polio victim. It gave them courage and hope. All her childhood it was drilled into Helen that in life she could accomplish anything she set her mind to. After all, the president had polio, too. When other kids would tease her on the playground, as kids will do, she thought of Roosevelt and tossed off their remarks. Her disability did not really bother her until adolescence when she yearned to dance. That was her first and only recognition of loss.
In Helen’s memory she was always lame. She did not perceive it as a disability because she knew nothing else. When she was about six her father graduated from Cal and the family moved back to Harbin to be with his family. Eventually he found work with the Ford Company in Tiensin, where they remained until just before Pearl Harbor. At thirteen it was time for Helen to have surgery, but now she was too old for the Shrine Hospital. The same Russian doctor in San Francisco who had first treated her performed the operation. She missed a year of school and was in a cast for a very long time once more. Still, she remembered the imbedded command: Helen, you can be ANYBODY. Likewise she embraced the knowledge that she had the genes of her White Russian great grandmother, the strong woman who grew wheat.
She set her sights on helping others, and eventually graduated from USC with a master’s in social welfare. a career she followed all her life. I’ve never heard Helen complain nor give in to adversity. She just keeps plugging. In her lifetime she inspired thousands of young women to love the outdoors , to take risks in life, and to set high aspirations. She inspires me today: smiling, gutsy, caring, as always. Moreover, she believes to the core that polio is what made her who she is.