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We have no control over some of the most important events that shape our lives, but we do have a choice in how we respond to them. Dr. Lauro Halstead contracted polio in 1954, and survived on a plywood ventilator in the basement of a children's hospital run by nuns. He went on to become a renowned physician, and treated polio patients and people with spinal cord injuries. He just retired from his position with the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital. He talks to Metro Connection's Sabri Ben-Achour about his work and about how a combination of serendipity and resilience dictate how our lives unfold. Following are highlights of their conversation.
Dr. Halstead on contracting polio as a teenager: "I was 18. I had just completed my first year of 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 thought this was a minor setback and I'll be finished with this 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 set of stairs, and I had reduced use of my left arm. 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."
On handling the disease while he was in Spain: "I was essentially alone. And what made it worse was in those days, the dictator of Spain, Franco, in an effort to conserve electricity, 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. And just by the grace of God, I managed to survive and eventually get back to the United States."
On his decision to study medicine: "Well you're right in some respects. 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 — wasn't normal strength. I realized that with my physical limitation, I needed a profession where there was a fair amount of intellectual involvement."
On handling medical school: "Well, I was right-handed originally, so I did have to learn to write with my left hand. It was not very graceful script, but you manage, and that's one of the messages I 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 that is almost impossible with one hand. Well, I devised techniques for doing 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."
His advice to young people: "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 learn how to deal with misfortune, with events that are out of their control, with challenges, whether it's physical, emotional, financial."
[Music: "Untitled" by Mogwai from Rock Action]