A Physician's Life in the Shadow of Polio
Lauro S. Halstead, M. D.
In the summer 1952, a young American college student was on his way to the south of France to live with a family and improve his French. But a chance meeting at Chartres led him to go off to Portugal with a friend. Later, on their way back through Madrid, the author of this book - - - Lauro Halstead - - - developed a high fever, pain, and complete loss of muscle tone in his right arm.
He couldn't sleep, and quickly lost his ability to breathe normally. He was placed - - - or rather, folded up - - - into what was probably the only iron lung in Madrid, a wooden wine crate modified for very young polio victims. A priest arrived to give him last rites, to which Halstead responded (whispered rather), "Go to hell."
He sought assistance from a nearby American military base, and, although they were not supposed to treat civilians, a doctor there visited and told him that he had come down with poliomyelitis. The doctor, William Patterson, also arranged, against all military rules, to get the eighteen-year-old back to the United States. That's where this story begins.
And it ends as Halstead, now eighty-years-old (and himself a doctor) speculates on where he might have ended up if he had not had this astonishing interruption in his life.
Did polio in some perverse way enrich my life? I suppose that's possible. I may not have become a physician, and instead might have lived a carefree life in southern France making my own wine and perfecting my use of irregular verbs. As it is, being a disabled adult has given me a perspective on life I wouldn't otherwise have had, and this was especially useful while working with adults who were truly, profoundly disabled with spinal cord injuries.
"My empathy for these young people was real, which enhanced my role as a healer. And it definitively gave me a strong incentive to research ways to ease their suffering."
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Lauro is no slacker. He returned to finish college, entered medical school and, despite polio's depriving him of the use of his right arm, went on to become a highly respected expert in rehabilitation medicine. Along the way, he taught himself Italian, came to be a competent musician, and became the first person to discover what is now being called Halstead's Syndrome.
This last came about because back in 1984 - - - long after recovering from polio - - - he found himself with an unexplained weaknesses in his legs. In the years since his attack, to keep up his strength, he had exercised by running up and down stairs, but suddenly his legs were "feeling heavy." A neurologist diagnosed it as, possibly, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. .
In the days that followed, a cloud of despair enveloped me. I was 46 years old and just hitting my stride professionally. I had two beautiful daughters and a loving wife. There was a lot to live for, but suddenly it all seemed hopeless.
A double whammy - - - polio as a young man; now Lou Gehrig's disease in middle age.
But then he noticed something strange. The pain was not something new: "It felt exactly like the muscle pain I'd had when I got polio almost 30 years earlier. Was my body sending me a message from long ago?" Being a doctor had taught him how to listen to his patients, and come up with a diagnosis, sometimes a very far-fetched one. With some research, he found a study made earlier at the Mayo Clinic that told of polio survivors who had developed new weaknesses that could not be explained by mere years. "Their results were totally unexpected and suggested that as polio patients aged, their muscles and nerves started to decompensate."
Halstead made contact with the doctor who had done the Mayo study and discovered that what he had was not ALS at all, but rather post-polio syndrome (PPS) - - - a new bodily loss, one that we polios thought we had put behind us.
Halstead and the doctor from Mayo, David Wiechers, decided to set up a get-together to air this discovery. They contracted to do it at Georgia Warm Springs Foundation (founded by Franklin Roosevelt to treat polio) and - - - soon enough - - - what was to be an informal meeting with interested doctors turned into an important three-day assemblage. It was closely followed by national and international reporters because
It was big news. Most Americans hadn't forgotten the terrifying epidemics if the mid 20th century. The specter of polio still had the power to fascinated and create fear. The day following the conference, there were front-page stories in all the major newspapers.
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Halstead is a persuasive writer, and completely open. He doesn't dwell on his many and honorable successes in medicine. He speaks frankly of a patient who was extremely doubtful that a doctor with only one functioning arm could inject him --- not knowing that Halstead had done practice to a fare-thee-well on this very problem, allowing him to do just that.
He also confesses the times when he has blown it. Unlike most doctors, he confesses to occasional failings that have cost human lives. He berates himself for trying his hand as a therapist - - - tells of a group of friends and professionals in Houston, where he lived, who undertook their own group, with some calamitous results.
He speaks frankly of two failed marriages. And he does not leave out the time of what he (and Dante) call "the dark night of the soul."
He had flown to Saginaw, Michigan for a job interview. It was a time when he was surviving on Valium and Johnny Walker Black Label. In the mirror he "hardly recognized the haggard person staring back at me: slightly thinning blond hair, dark circles that emphasized the grey in my blue eyes, hollow cheeks from eating too much junk food. How had I fallen so far?" From the window of the motel where he was staying , he could see the gray sky, the snow and hail. "It made for a desolate view. 'Sag-i-naw!' I said to myself. Even the name sounded depressing."
Fortunately, he was to begin his study of PPS. At the same time, working with other disabled people, he pioneered the means for spinal cord injured men to have the chance to father children, doing research on his own, daring to experiment without the full-blown bureaucratic protocol that makes most medical research tedious and expensive.
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Unexpected Journey is not as bleak as what one great disabled writer called "CripLit." The book's opening description of the family's summer home in Peru, Vermont is vibrant, and full of life. His school reunion from 2008, when, after 55 years, he ends up playing an "euphonium" with his old classmates - - - Mood Indigo, Basin Street Blues, and I'm in the Mood for Love - - - is a kick in the pants. And his story of rediscovering his parents is wistful, stirring. Halstead knows how to get the words right on the page, and the book, available directly from Amazon, is well worth your time.
Oh yes. Full disclosure. I knew Halstead from the time we were both at Haverford College, back in 1955. I even appear here in the book. You can find me on page 183.
He neglects, however, to give me more than half a paragraph, and ignores my fantastic sense of humor, my ability to salt away a half-a-case of beer of an evening, and my nice blue-green eyes. This will all be forgiven.
All the things that happened to him before, during, and after his very fortunate meeting with me is presented artfully; with almost too much modest charm.