By Robert Mauro.
Robert Mauro is the author of five books, including The Landscape of My Disability.
I couldn't breathe. It was after midnight. It was dark. Everyone was sleeping. But I had been throwing up for an hour. I felt like I was dying.
I felt deathly ill. Did I have food poisoning? Or was it just the stress of college? I was one of only 40 disabled students out of 12,000 at Hofstra University back in 1969. Was that finally getting to me? I did feel like a stranger in a strange land.
Polio hadn't killed me eighteen years before. But it sure felt like something was killing me now. Was it the leftover Thanksgiving turkey I'd had for dinner?
Whatever was making me sick, I knew I was suffocating. I couldn't get my breath.
"I can't breathe," I gasped, stumbling into my parent's room about two in the morning.
In what seemed like forever, the paramedics arrived. They gave me oxygen. I still felt like I was suffocating.
"We have to get him to the hospital right now," someone said.
I wasn't sure who said it. My mom? My dad? The paramedics?
When we got to the hospital, no one seemed to know what to do. Not surprising. No one ever seemed to know what to do with a crip.
The small ER was nearly deserted. This was just a tiny private hospital that dealt mostly with maternity cases.
"He can't breathe," said the paramedic to the lone ER nurse.
"I can't breathe," I gasped.
I was moved to a bed in a small, dark room. I could hear the hiss of the oxygen. Still I was gasping for air. My dad hadn't come. He was home with my younger brother. I kept waiting for someone to rush in and save my life. My mom was talking to me. She was petting my sweaty brow. I was dying. I knew it. This was it. Finally. Polio had finally gotten me. Or was it a bad Thanksgiving turkey?
Whatever it was, I knew this was The End. And part of me said, "OK, fine. Who needs the hassle? There's no access. There are no curb cuts. I can barely get around campus."
A nurse walked in and said she had called a priest. He was just up the block. In the rectory. Sleeping. But she woke him. What did she know that I didn't to make her awaken a sleeping priest?
"He is a Catholic. Right?" the nurse asked my mother.
"I can't breathe," I gasped.
The nurse ignored me and left.
Everything was turning gray. I was wondering if this was how it all ended. First you could see colors. Then the color drained out of everything. The room. Your vision. And you just faded away, into this colorless mist.
I began to hear voices. The dead? No. It was only the old priest from up the corner, who had been sleeping in the rectory. He was giving me the last rites. He rubbed oil on my lips and forehead. Okay, I figured. Couldn't hurt. College hadn't completely turned me against God. I had a few questions left for Him. Like why aren't these assholes giving me enough air? Of course I didn't use the word asshole . . . or did I?
The priest wished my mother the best and went back to bed, I assume, in the church rectory up the block from the small private maternity hospital.
Mom and I were all alone in that gray room with the hiss of the oxygen. No one came. People kept passing by the open door. But no one came in. No one could help me, I figured. Or wanted to. Or even cared to. Who needed another crip in the world anyway?
Mom squeezed my hand as if to let me know I was not going to die alone. She'd hang in there with me -- right to the bitter end. She never gave up on me. She had fought to get me out of that horrible crip school and into Saint Luke's, a few blocks from my house. True, the nuns had finally thrown me out after I nearly got burned up in a school fire. I was excommunicated -- or was it extricated? -- from Saint Luke's and shipped unceremoniously back to the city's horrible crip school dumping ground. The nuns may have wanted to save my soul, but they sure shipped my ass out of their school pronto.
Mom had practically gotten on her knees to beg Monsignor Mathis to let me stay at Saint Luke's. But this was1958. The cleric had just said "no," perhaps thinking more of fire insurance than saving my soul from the fires of Hell. It was his ass or my soul, and his ass won. Go figure.
Back to the city's horrible crip school dumping ground I went. I stayed there until I ended up on "home instruction." I remained on "home instruction" for five years after the orthopedic surgeons tried to straighten out my spine and fuse it. He didn't do a great job, but I wasn't surprised.
I lay gasping in the hospital bed, my whole life flashing before me. Murray Kerner, my home instruction teacher, was having me read A Tale of Two Cities. The beginning of Dickens' book came to mind: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . "
Kerner was teaching me how to write a story. Use my imagination, he said. But who needed an imagination as I lay gasping for air in that hospital bed? Babies were being born all around me, and here I was on my way out. There was so much unreality going down. Meanwhile, polio was slowly creeping back out of the darkness. It had first hit me when I was five, in 1951.
"We're transferring him to the county hospital," the lone ER nurse finally told my mother. "We don't have the ventilators or the specialist here he needs."
Finally, I thought, they were doing something. I could see a little light at the end of the tunnel. Or was that just the light everyone saw before the end? I was not sure if this was really happening to me or if I was just dreaming it. Was this all just some bad turkey nightmare? Or was this what oxygen deprivation did to your brain? Or, better yet, was I simply having a near-death experience? I could write about that, at least! Every cloud, after all, did have a silver lining.
As the paramedics took me out into the cold December air, I suddenly took a deep breath. I was breathing. Why? What had happened? Was this all just fear? Panic? A bad turkey?
"I can breathe!" I cried.
Everyone smiled at me and continued to rush me across Queens County to the big hospital -- the same hospital I had ended up in eighteen years before, when I'd first gotten polio. I was put in an iron lung then. Would that happen again? I was headed back to that horrible place!
When I was admitted to the county hospital, a Chinese doctor looked at me and immediately called for a ventilator.
A mask was put over my face and air forced into me. It came in such powerful blasts, it took my breath away. This was not a good sign.
"Just relax. Let the machine breathe for you," the Chinese doctor said.
"I can breathe on my own!" I tried to scream through the mask. "I'm okay!"
But the doctor just ignored me. Nothing new there.
Finally my father and brother arrived. It was my younger brother who told everyone what I was saying. Somehow he understood me. Why? Maybe he was less panicky. Or just pissed off at the doctor.
Suddenly, I just pulled the vent mask off. Wait! I can breathe! Wait . . . hold it. No. I thought I could breathe. But I couldn't! No air would come. Then . . . slowly . . . I did begin to breathe on my own. My system kicked back into gear. I was breathing.
"I can breathe," I said. "I'm okay."
Everyone looked at me. No one said anything. I was just happy to be breathing. I had a big smile on my face. "Sorry. False alarm," I thought to myself. At least that's what I hoped it was. I wasn't sure.
"It must have been the turkey," I said.
"Turkey?" the Chinese doctor asked.
"We had leftover Thanksgiving turkey for supper. He was throwing up," my mom told the Chinese doctor.
"Ahhhh," said the Chinese doctor, nodding. "He must have aspirated something into his lungs. We must keep him in the hospital until we can be sure there is no pneumonia."
In four days I was back home. I returned to college ten days later. But I was still having trouble breathing. I'd get tired fast, too. And then I'd panic. I couldn't breathe.
I went back to the Chinese doctor.
"It is nerves," he said.
I went to a shrink.
"It is college," he said. "Stress."
But I knew it wasn't. Something was wrong. That turkey had just been the straw that broke the camel's back.
It took me eighteen more months, two more shrinks, and three more doctors until I found out it was polio.
"We're seeing a lot of this in many of our old polios," said Dr. August Alba, of Goldwater Memorial Hospital, located on Roosevelt Island in New York City.
That day Dr. Alba ordered a respirator and a rocking bed sent to my house. No one was sure why post polios were experiencing new symptoms. But we were. It was 1970.
It would be another decade before it would get a name: Post Polio Syndrome.
Back to table of contents