Tom Grant wasn't comfortable sharing his story until a few years ago.
When he starts telling the story, however, it's clear he's thought a lot about it. Some 60 years later, the details are clear as the 83-year-old Zelienople resident sets the scene.
In September 1953, Grant was a 17-year-old senior and three-sport athlete in eastern Pennsylvania's Delaware County. A newspaper clipping called him a star football player. He calls the description premature.
“I never started a varsity game,” he said.
He awoke the Wednesday before his first varsity appearance on the gridiron feeling sore, which he chalked up to tough practices. As the day went on, the soreness grew greater. He visited the school doctor, who gave him an aspirin. He promptly threw it in the garbage.
“I found out later that was the best thing I could have done with it because it would have covered symptoms,” he recalled.
Tom clearly remembers how the rest of the day was a blur of worsening pain that eventually woke him up later that evening. While attempting to stretch his left knee, he fell down. His father got him back to bed, and the next morning Grant was paid a visit from a doctor. It didn't take long to get a diagnosis.
“All he did was do a reflex (test) on my left foot ... and he told my parents, 'Your son has polio,'” he said.
At the time, he was the 41st person in Delaware County to contract the disease that year alone.
Living in denial
Since that diagnosis, Grant has been challenged by the disease, relying on crutches to get around as he deals with post-polio syndrome.
For the majority of his life, Grant and his family denied the seriousness and effect the disease had on him. He was quarantined and missed months of school, where he was senior class president. He vividly recalls returning just two months after his diagnosis to give a Thanksgiving themed speech on what he was most thankful for.
He said the March of Dimes paid for everything from therapy to a brace and hospital bed for the family's home. He remembers his father, a carpenter, being upset and worried when the $75 hospital bill came.
He wore the brace on his left leg for a while, but ditched it once he began classes at Albright College in Reading, limping around campus and trying to ignore the pain.
Eventually, he found himself teaching history and world cultures. Throughout his 35 years teaching, he continued to battle through the pain.
“I'd go up and down the steps four or five times a day because I wanted to,” he said.
It wasn't until he met his wife, Marie, that reality began setting in. She recalled Tom being quiet about his issues, and when she pressed him on details she learned he never had a follow-up doctor's appointment.
The couple married in 1993. That same year, doctors informed Tom that he should not have even had the ability to walk based on the pain and the damage done by overcorrecting his right leg for nearly 40 years. Marie said denial further led to Tom not being diagnosed with post-polio syndrome until 2001.
Since then, he's experienced additional health issues, including heart surgeries in 2006 and 2009. He even spent nine days in a coma after being given anesthesia that reacts negatively in polio patients during one surgery. In the aftermath, he had to relearn basic functions such as walking, making phone calls and writing checks.
To hear Tom tell it, however, he's in relatively good health — a hunch confirmed by a recent doctor's visit.
“I'm in pretty good shape when you look at other people my age,” he said.
Marie is perhaps a little more practical.
“Part of the reason he's in really good health is because polio survivors are really tough, are really strong, are really ...,” she started.
“Stubborn,” Tom added without missing a beat.
Tom's health has steadily improved since 2011, and he has made it a mission to spread his story and serve as a reminder that while polio was eradicated in the United States in 1994, lingering impacts still remain.
He finally felt comfortable opening up about his past. He and Marie now serve as co-chairs of the End Polio for Rotary District 7280. The couple spend their days traveling to various clubs and educating members about the disease that Rotary International places a major emphasis for fundraising.
The two also visit schools and speak to students about the disease, unfamiliar to so many due to its lack of presence in the United States. Tom said even some doctors are relatively unfamiliar with polio, which led the duo to learn and advocate.
“In the U.S., we have this attitude that it's a disease of the past,” he said. “It's very lackadaisical, leading people to not get immunizations for their children. Even countries where they've eradicated polio, which is most of the world, there are still polio survivors.”
Tom has done more than just survive and thrive. In addition to sharing his story, he and Marie spent nearly eight years serving as ambassadors for the ShelterBox program, a Rotary-supported effort providing emergency shelter, tents and supplies to families around the world who have been displaced by disaster or conflict.
Tom also started no less than five exchange student programs, and taught overseas in places like Japan. In their spare time, Tom and Marie traveled to 53 countries, including a trip last year to South Africa.
It was in the airport for that trip that Tom fell — a common occurrence with his syndrome. This time, he wasn't able to catch himself, and boarded the plane with a bloody lip. Upon returning stateside, it was discovered he had also broken his hand and left foot, and had fought through the pain during their trip.
As he recalled the story, Tom played off the incident as something that couldn't slow him down. It was on brand for a man who has put others first throughout his more than eight decades on earth.
-Polio mainly effects children under the age of 5.
-Polio is spread person-to-person, typically through contaminated water.
-There is no cure for polio, but a vaccine can help prevent it.
-As many of 200,000 new cases occur around the world each year.
- About one-in-four people have flu-like symptoms, lasting two to five days
- More serious effects include feeling of pins and needles in the legs, meningitis and paralysis
- A vaccine can prevent a person from contracting the disease
- Only three countries remain endemic.
- World Polio Day, established by Rotary International, is held every Oct. 24 to bring awareness to the disease.
Rotary International has been working for more than 30 years to eradicate polio, helping to immunize 2.5 billion children in 122 countries.
Source: End Polio
Post - Polio Syndrome
- Occurs in between 25 and 40 of every 100 polio survivors
- Begins 15 to 40 years after the initial infection
- Symptoms include muscle weakness, mental and physical fatigue and pain from joint deterioration
- It is not contageous
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention