He Licked Polio
His friends thought he was hopelessly paralyzed. But Henry Wightman didn’t agree. He fought and won
JOHN B. McKAY
LAST MONTH, when Henry Wightman walked up the aisle to receive his degree as Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University, three people in Grant Hall knew that a struggle begun more than 20 years ago had been won. The three were Henry and his father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. H. D. Wightman, Cornwall, and the struggle was against infantile paralysis, which struck Henry down in his crib.
Henry walked to the podium on crutches, but he walked. Grasping his supports with incongruously big, powerful hands, he swung his short frail body along in an indescribable pendulum motion developed through long years of practice. A quick, contagious smile lit up his angular face when the assembled students gave him a round of applause. He’d earned that applause, not by his handicap, but by genuine popularity. Among other thirgs, he’d been treasurer of the Arts Society in his third year, and there hadn’t been many college social functions in which he hadn’t taken part.
If there were any who felt a little sorry for him, they weren’t his father and his mother. Henry
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He Licked Polio
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himself doesn’t waste any time on pity, and anyone who tries it in his presence is apt to draw a short, sharp wisecrack. At the age of 12, when he was temporarily in a wheel chair after a series of operations that let him stand on his feet for the first time in his life, a kind but unthinking lady gushed over him. “You poor lad,” she said. “Whatever happened?”
“I was in a car accident and broke both my legs,” said Henry. Then he went on to fill in gory details that held the woman spellbound until her nerve broke, and she fled.
Half of the battle in Henry’s life has been to make it possible for him to walk. That meant year after year of special plaster casts, leg braces, and finally, operations.
But the other half of the struggle was even tougher. It was the unending fight to let this crippled boy develop normally; to let him grow up feeling that he could share all the fun and interests of his chums. The Wightmans feel that was their biggest victory. Henry says himself he was through public school before he realized how badly handicapped he was, and all through his life he has been into more activities than most average youngsters. He plays a hot piano— and classics, too, if he must— he was a second-class Boy Scout, and he won prizes through school for every kind of nonathletic activity from public speaking to playing a leading part in a Latin club. He was a good average student, too busy to be a bookworm.
Henry won this battle party through his own determination and partly because his parents charted a course from the time he was stricken and never wavered from it
“We made it our policy to see that he did everything possible that the other children his age did,” Mrs. Wightman says. “We never let him feel that he ought to be sorry for himself or for us, and we never talked about Henry’s paralysis when he could hear us.”
Henry Wightman is 22 years old now. When the disease hit him, on Sept. 22, 1925, he was just one year and nine months old, and was living in Kingston. There was only one other case of infantile paralysis in the city at the time, and for two days the parents and the doctor thought it was just a bilious attack. By then all the muscles on his left side were relaxed, and the disease speedily crept along his right side, until his right arm and his heart seemed to be the only parts of his tiny body still functioning.
Doctors didn’t think he had more than a bare chance to live. After two weeks he gradually began to improve a little. Although all his limbs were still paralyzed, he picked up enough strength to be taken to Dr. W. E. Gallie, Toronto, who tried a special removable plaster cast, from the hips down. Henry stayed in this cast for eight months, but w'hen it was found to be doing little good his feet were fitted with special clubfoot splints and he was placed on a “Bradford frame”—a framework of piping, eight inches wide and as long as the child’s body. In this he was held with canvas, in order to keep his
body straight and prevent curvature of the spine. He left it only for a little while each day, when he was given baths. One night during these baths his parents got their first big thrill of hope. They felt slight pressure from one foot as the child instinctively tried to splash in the warm water.
After six months on the frame Henry graduated to leg braces, which were intended to keep the leg muscles from contracting. He wore them for five years.
School Life Begins
During the leg braces stage the Wightmans started their campaign to give Henry a normal life. When he was four and a half he was carried to kindergarten each day, and he took part in everything that was possible for a boy who couldn’t walk. Then he started to public school. He was carried to class each morning, brought home at noon and then carried back in the afternoon. He learned to get around in school by crawling or pulling himself along the floor. The Wightmans always refused to have anything to do with a wheel chair. “We think that would have bound him to it for life,” they say now.
Henry went to ball games and other sports with his father. His mother, who formerly had taught music, began to coach him on the piano at the age of six. Henry loved music, and a few years later, after his parents had moved to Bowmanville, he won a silver medal at the Durham County Music Festival. About the
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same time he won a prize for oratory at the Bowmanville Public School.
Henry’s constant companion in those public school days was his brother, Joe, who was about three and a half years older. He hauled Henry to school every day in a little wagon, and got him into his classroom. Then, in 1930, infantile paralysis struck the family for the second time. One day Joe came home from school feeling sick, and four days later he was dead.
Henry might have been stuck then, but a neighbor boy came to his rescue. “Don’t worry, Henry,” he told him. “I’ll get you to school all right.” He did, too, for several years. Henry never missed a day of school because of bad weather.
In 1932, after five years of them, Henry got rid of the braces on his legs. He still couldn’t walk, so his father devised a way for him to get around by himself. Working nights all winter, with a bicycle frame for material, he built a four-wheeled contraption which Henry could drive by turning two crank handles in front of him. These turned the rear wheels by means of a chain and sprocket arrangement. Henry’s feet rested on specially built supports on the front axle, and by applying slight pressure with his feet he could guide his craft. It had a little basket on the back so that he could run errands, and the machine became known all over Bowmanville.
He Gets His Own Car
In the summer of 1933, Danny, a nearly blind pony, came on the scene and gave Henry a new method of transportation. Danny made him just about the most popular boy in town. The following year Henry got his really big break. There was a popularity contest at the Bowmanville theatre, and the prize was a midget car propelled by a one-cylinder gasoline engine. The night the voting was held Henry won hands down. Danny was retired, and the car moved into the preferred spot in his “garage.”
In 1935 the Wightmans moved to North Bay. There Henry joined the Scouts and was right in the centre of all Scout activities after that. Where the other boys rode their bikes, he drove his little auto. When the auto couldn’t make it, someone carried him. But he was always there.
The Wightmans had known for some years that Henry would have to undergo some serious operation if he was ever to have a chance of walking. In 1936, when he was 12, the time came. Dr. R. I. Harris, Toronto, performed two operations, and after the second one Henry came home to his hardest ordeal of all.
The great problem was to keep the muscles in the groin from contracting. To keep Henry’s back straight he was put on a frame that would have done well as a torture rack in the Middle Ages. It was an adaptation of the Bradford frame of his babyhood. His hips were propped up 21 inches higher than the rest of his body. His legs were in a cast, with a crossbar 18 inches long across the bottom to keep his feet spread
apart. Henry lay in this queer, unnatural position from June until August. Then he was freed from it for the daylight hours, but each night he had to go back to his torture bed.
Henry remembers those days well, and so do his parents. They think especially of the ordeal of strapping him into his “bed” each night. Despite the agony which they knew it gave him, they never sympathized; they felt that would be fatal, and Henry never complained. As soon as he was released from the frame during the day, he went back to school, although still wearing the cast. All his life he had been brought up to think that when you could possibly make it you went to school.
The Big Day—He Walks
So Henry was trundled to school and carried from class to class in a special chair which his father made to carry him and his clumsy cast. Then came that great day in November, 1936, when the cast came off and Henry began to walk on crutches. For two months he had more freedom to get about than he had ever had in his life. It ended temporarily in January, 1937, when he went back to Toronto for his third operation, to adjust the muscles in his feet. By Easter he was once again free of the old familiar cast, and this time he stayed out of it.
Despite the time taken for operations, Henry got his first year in collegiate, and at the same time went to work on the job of learning to walk on crutches. His father made his first pair, and has been doing it ever since. They were a short, cut-down style which allowed Henry to support his weight on his hands while straps around the upper part of the crutches supported his forearms. Henry soon achieved a gait that got him along as fast as a walk.
That summer Henry went to Scout camp. He won a medal for swimming, and just mi&sed becoming a first-class Scout. It wasn’t his physical handicap that kept him from making it; he fell down on the distance-judging test!
He kept up his interest in piano, and also began practicing on the clarinet. When his family went to Owen Sound in June, 1938, Henry, then a third-year student at collegiate, started to take up jazz music seriously—a member of the teaching staff was also a fine pianist. Shortly after the Wightmans moved to Cornwall in the fall of 1939, he organized his own orchestra at the school. It did a roaring business at school functions and private parties among the students.
His father was manager of The Standard - Freeholder, Cornwall’s newspaper, and Henry added another item to his list of activities. For three summer vacations, from 1943 to 1945, he served as a cub reporter. He took his turn on all assignments, and neither asked for nor got favors from the “desk.” At the same time he was playing in a local orchestra one or two nights a week, and generally keeping up a pace that would have worn out the average young man.
At Cornwall Collegiate Henry be-
came about the best-known person in the school because, as his pals put it, he was “game for anything.” Take his experience in the school’s Latin Club: although he hated the subject, Henry won a pin as the Club’s most valuable member. He ended his Cornwall schooling as president of the Students’ Council and valedictorian at the commencement exercises.
How to Make Friends
In the fall of 1943 Henry went to Queen’s University, Kingston, and faced again the old problem of making friends. For the first time he was completely on his own.
Henry’s freshman year at college was the most lonesome of his life. The honors course in Commerce kept him fairly busy, and for recreation he turned to two of the things he knew best—music and reporting. His piano playing broke the ice, as it had many times before. He played for a couple of parties, and got to be in popular demand for evening singsongs at the Students’ Union. He also reported for the Queen’s Journal, the student newspaper.
Henry was elected treasurer of his year when he came back as a sophomore. That made him feel he was making friends, and by the end of the year he was sure of it. He says now that by spring he had at least a nodding acquaintance with 75% of the student body. He was Arts representative for Tricolor, the university’s annual review of student activities, and he was intermission pianist at almost every major college dance. This year, his final one, followed the same pattern. His big job was treasurer of the Arts Society, one of the major student bodies, but he was interested in a dozen other activities as well. He was well-established as one of the university’s leading and most willing “hot” pianists, and joined Local 518 of the Musicians’ Union so he could play with a 12-piece Kingston orchestra made up partly of college students. He played on the average of once every couple of weeks with the band.
One of the key points in Henry’s attitude toward life and his affliction is never to worry too much beforehand when he makes up his mind he wants to do something. “I try it the first time, and if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. I don’t try it again.” Some things, like most sports, dancing and so on, he knows are ruled out, and he doesn’t think of them. In everything else he has to find out he’s wrong before he gives them up. He hesitated a long time, he says, before he worked up enough nerve to try billiards. He was afraid he might make a spectacle of himsell. He plays now, though he admits cheerfully he’s not so good, because he can’t balance himself very well. “I’m rotten, but I know a lot of fellows who are worse,” he says.
Two incidents from his final year at Queen’s illustrate this attitude of Henry’s. One was the occasion of the Queen’s-Varsity football game in Toronto. Henry went along with a bunch of friends, though he didn’t have a place to stay, and as a matter of fact he didn’t get to bed for 36
hours. He won’t talk much about that week end, but admits he was one of the few Queen’s students who actually got their money’s worth out of the fine levied on the student body for unofficial decorations to the Toronto campus—painting the stands in Queen’s colors.
Later in the year the Commerce Club at Queen’s arranged a visit to the Westinghouse and Steel Company of Canada plants at Hamilton. Henry made the long trip to Hamilton, and stuck with his classmates all day while they toured the big plants. “I suppose if I had really thought about the difficulties of that trip, I wouldn’t have gone,” Henry said later. “But I wasn’t sorry. I was completely beaten at the end of the day—but so was everyone else.”
He Asks No Favors
Henry’s code of behavior is simple and unvarying: “I don’t expect
people to make concessions to me,” he says. “My friends don’t do it. It’s only strangers who give me trouble.” If Henry wants help, he
asks for it. If he doesn’t ask he doesn’t want it. He has the most trouble on buses and streetcars, where someone is always getting up to give him a seat. He usually takes it, to avoid a scene, but finds it hard to be gracious about it.
That’s the story of Henry Wightman—so far. He faces anot her hurdle now in getting settled in a job, but both he and his parents think he can make it. He’s won tougher fights than that in the past 22 years. As usual, he wants to work it out in his own way—he’s not looking to his father to find him a job. If at any time he feels the need of a little encouragement, he can think back to the time when a member of Queen’s Faculty of Medicine asked him, as a favor, to attend a lecture he was giving. After sketching Henry’s case history, the professor told the class: “This boy should have spent his life in a wheel chair. He didn’t, because he and his parents decided he wasn’t going to do it. It illustrates what can be done when common sense and patience take over where medical science leaves off.”