MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The man we'll meet next has a story that really says a lot about the choices we make when life throws us a curve ball. Dr. Lauro Halstead contracted polio when he was just 18 years old. He went on to become a very successful physician, one who spent many years at D.C.'s MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital caring for other polio survivors. Now, 76 years old and newly retired, Dr. Halstead sat down with Sabri Ben-Achour to talk about his life and his future.
MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR
Dr. Halstead, you contracted polio when you were traveling as a teenager in Europe. Can you share that story with us?
DR. LAURO HALSTEAD
I was 18. I had just completed my first year in college. I was going to Europe, as many students did in those days and still do, and I passed through Madrid. And as it happens, when I got to Madrid I was quite ill, initially GI upset, mostly lower intestinal tract with diarrhea and cramps, low-grade fever, not feeling generally well. Of course initially I thought this was a minor setback and I'll be finished with it shortly, but this persisted and within about 48 hours my right arm was totally paralyzed. My legs were so weak I could not climb a flight of stairs and I had reduced use of my left arm.
DR. LAURO HALSTEAD
Eventually I ended up in a Spanish hospital. And within another week my breathing started to go out and they transferred me to another facility where I was placed in a respirator. They didn't have iron lungs in Madrid in those days. They had respirators made of plywood. So I was put in plywood lung.
I think that in this day and age many people don't even know what an iron lung is or can't really conceive of a plywood respirator. Can you tell me what that machine, that contraption looked like and did?
Sure. The iron lung, which is the prototype, is like a cylinder and it's enclosed on both ends except for a little port where your head is exposed. And then there's a small motor which drives the bellows at the other end of the lung, the foot-end of the lung. And it allows the bellows to either go out and then the pressure drops and air is pushed into your mouth from the outside. And then on the repeat cycle, the bellows pushes into the lungs so that now the air's compressed, puts pressure on your chest and makes you exhale. So it's a cycle of (makes noise) in and out, in and out, allowing you to breathe.
I cannot imagine what that must have been like to have to be in that contraption so far away from home. I mean, did your parents know?
No. I was essentially alone. What made it even worse is that in those days, the dictator of Spain, Franco, in an effort to conserve electricity, they turned off all power in the city of Madrid from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. And so the respirator went dead at 2 a.m. So just by the grace of God, I managed to survive, as I say, eventually get back to the United States.
You eventually recovered and went on to pursue medicine. I can imagine a lot of people wanting to stay as far as away from medicine as possible after that experience.
Well, you're right in some respects. I mean, I didn't fully recover. My right arm has remained totally paralyzed since. My legs did get stronger; in fact, they were very strong for a number of years. And my left arm was reasonably strong, it wasn't normal strength. I realized that with my physical limitation that I needed a profession where there was a fair amount of intellectual involvement.
I just wonder how you were able to take all the notes that are required in medical school. Do you just have an amazing memory or...
No, no, no. No, no amazing memory. Not at all. Well, I was right-handed originally, so I did have to learn to write with my left hand. It was never a very graceful script, but, you know, you manage. And that's one of the lessons I've learned with my polio, is that you learn to compensate in ways that the average person can't even conceive of. When I was in training, for example, I had to draw blood often. And one might say, well, that's almost impossible with one hand. Well, I devised techniques for doing it and in fact got so skillful that I was I was teaching other people how to do it with one hand, if you can believe it.
So the thing is, it's difficult sometimes for someone who is able bodied to imagine how could I ever, ever do what he's doing with that disability, with those physical limitations? But, you know, when you live with it, minute by minute, every day, 24 hours, you know, you learn to compensate.
When you look back on your life and how it sort of unfolded, in many ways serendipitously, what would you say to a young person, say 20, starting out, about how they should plan their life or if they should at all?
I mean, I think an important element for any young person is the whole concept of resilience and perseverance. I mean, no one's life is free of problems, of challenges, of confrontations. And I think it's absolutely critical that everybody, everybody, you know, learn how to deal with misfortune, with events that are out of their control, of challenges, whether it's physical, emotional, financial. When that happens it forces you to dig deep and find resources you didn't think were there. I mean, in medicine, we have a perfect metaphor. You break a bone. When it heals, it's stronger than before. I mean, just imagine, stronger than before. And that's what surmounting life's challenges is all about.
That was Dr. Lauro Halstead speaking with WAMU's Sabri Ben-Achour.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and International law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.