In the kitchen one day I caught my two boys talking about their grandfather, my stepdad.
“Grandpa walks like a penguin,” my 4-year-old said. My 6-year-old quickly jumped in to correct him.
“Penguins walk like this,” he said, shuffling with close, short steps across the floor. “Grandpa walks like this.”
Diego went on to imitate the deep lean toward the left that characterizes how my stepfather has walked most of his life.
I was still smiling from the penguin comment when I sat the boys down to explain the illness that caused grandmpa’s severe limp.
My stepfather, Romulo Raul Ramirez, was just 10 months old when he contracted poliomyelitis, or the polio virus, from an older brother.
Raul’s big brother was about 3 years old and had a milder form of the virus, which my stepdad described as having cold-like symptoms. But my stepdad’s fate was different. He suffered a paralysis in his left leg that stunted its growth.
I thought about Raul, and that day in the kitchen with the boys, as I took my daughter to the doctor for her 1-year checkup recently. A series of vaccines were part of the visit, and Lucia received the last dose of her polio vaccination.
The shots got me thinking more deeply about Raul.
Raul was born in 1942 in a suburb of Lima, Peru, to a working class family. He was one of five children. Raul said that as a child, his left leg was always shorter — about six inches shorter than the right.
When he was 9 he was sent to Hogar Clinica San Juan De Dios in Lima for polio treatment. He spent six years living in the hospital, undergoing a series of operations to address his uneven legs.
Through a relative’s connection, Raul was treated by a doctor specializing in childhood polio.
“With me they experimented some,” he said, speaking to me in his native Spanish.
In the hospital, doctors stapled his right leg, the good leg, at the knee to slow down its growth and give the weaker left leg a chance to catch up.
“The staples in my right leg constantly burst,” he said. “They had to keep operating and put them in again. It was like 15 operations in the right leg.”
Eventually, his left leg and right leg were almost even. At the end of the years of treatment, his left leg was actually about a centimeter longer. But his left leg never developed as fully as the right.
Today it is still thinner and not as muscular as his right leg. Raul also has little movement of his left foot. He’s able to bend his foot down, but can’t bend it up.
When he was 16, doctors wanted to correct unevenness in his hips that was causing him to limp toward his left. They recommended more surgeries to place pins or screws in his hips. Being 16, and very active despite his condition, Raul took a pass on more operations.
“If they put those nails in me then, I was going to be like a robot. I couldn’t play. I’d always be stationary,” he said. “Since I was already older, they let me decide. I was very naughty. I was restless. I went out to play, to play soccer, ride bikes, swim. I told them no.
“They said if we operate your hip, you won’t be running here and there. I said no, I want to run and play, so they didn’t operate. So I stayed like that.”
Raul didn’t leave the hospital without some work done to his left leg as well. Doctors operated to correct his big toe from pointing upward, a common characteristic of polio paralysis. They manipulated tendons on his foot to allow him better movement of the foot as well. But he was never able to bend his foot upward.
The procedures done to help Raul were not uncommon during the 1940s and ’50s, when the polio epidemic struck children throughout the United States and Latin America. With the development of the polio vaccine in the ’50s, the number of cases began to drop.
But the world is not yet free of polio, with daily cases still being reported in parts of Africa and Asia. The virus is spread from person to person, and vaccine is the best protection.
Like smallpox in the ’70s, polio is poised for eradication as long as vaccination and awareness efforts continue. The cause has been championed by Bill Gates and Rotary International, among others.
Raul’s condition never kept him from living an active life. To this day he is an avid cyclist, easily riding 40 miles on a weekend morning. His leg might be small, but his muscles still work.
I’m thankful for the advances in science and medicine that have protected my family from what Raul and his family lived through just one generation ago.
Raul’s mother was 18 years old when her two children contracted polio. She passed years watching her second boy undergo surgeries while the virus took its toll on his left leg.
It’s Raul’s story and reflection of it that made soothing my daughters whimpers after getting her shots a lot easier to endure.