Surviving Polio Without Pity

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By Allison Ludwig

Editor Katie Williams

Kathleen Sims is a wife, mother, grandmother and retired nurse but also a polio survivor. Kathleen contracted polio at the young age of 13 months in 1954. Kathleen is a student of Oakland Community College, U of M, and Mid-Michigan Community College who went on to obtain her nursing degree.  

AC: How did you find out you had polio?

Sims: My parents noticed that when I tried to walk, I kept falling and crying in pain. A trip to the doctor’s office determined their worst fear: I had contracted polio. Although the polio vaccine was available, I had not gotten mine yet due to my age. 

I had two surgeries to lengthen the muscle in my leg. I walked with a slight limp in my younger years that most people didn’t notice unless I was tired. Later in life when I started to experience post-polio symptoms I had to be fitted for a brace. When on long walks or excursions, I had to use my scooter. 

AC: How were your parents as a support?

Sims: In my house I was treated without pity. The doctors told my parents to let me do things on my own and not to baby or pity me. It made me stronger and helped me to become independent.

AC: How has polio changed your life?

Sims: I am who I am today because of polio, I know no other way. I am stronger and more empathetic. I think that made me a better nurse. 

AC: Share a story that reveals a bias you have overcome.

Sims: As a kid I wasn’t the most popular because of being different. People viewed me as different because of my physical appearance. I wasn’t picked to play on the team or invited to social gatherings.

I remember as a girl in junior high we had to wear dresses and when they changed and gave us the option of slacks, I wasn’t viewed differently anymore because it hid the disability, so now I passed as normal. 

AC: How difficult was it to not engage in physical activities or sports?

Sims: I never have been a competitive person and the disability could be why. So, I don’t know if I would say I missed it, how do you miss something you never had? I think I was competitive with myself, I had to prove that I was strong. I had to work harder in my nursing career to achieve my goals.

AC: Describe an encounter with someone that has positively influenced you.

Sims: When I was 35, I went to a support group for others who had polio. This was my first meeting  with other polio survivors. During the meetings, I would share my aches, pains and fatigue I was experiencing.  I looked around the table at all the other people that had the same affliction as me and they were all nodding their heads in agreement. I felt validated for the first time in my life. I later went on to facilitate a support group in my home-town.

AC: If you could change or improve one thing about the world, what would it be?

Sims: To look at the person, not the disability.

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