One Woman’s Mission: To Immunize Children Worldwide With the Polio Vaccine
Ann Lee Hussey will not rest until polio, the debilitating disease that has afflicted her since childhood, is eradicated worldwide. An inspiring look at her very personal quest.
A Painful Childhood
Ann Lee was diagnosed with polio in 1955, when she was just 17 months old—three months after Jonas Salk’s safe and effective
vaccine was released but before it was widely distributed in many states, including Maine, where she grew up. “There was a
terrible outbreak in the Northeast that year,” she says. “Scared parents sent their kids out of the cities to the country
to protect them, though some were probably already contagious. I was the kid in the country who was supposed to be safe.”
She developed a fever and began stumbling dramatically. (The polio virus enters the body through the nose or the mouth, multiplies in the throat and the digestive tract, and then invades the bloodstream.) “My mom recognized the symptoms, and within a few hours she rushed me to the hospital,” says Ann Lee. However, the damage was done. Within days she was paralyzed from the waist down.
The full paralysis lasted only a few weeks, but her largely dysfunctional legs remained in pain. For more than a year, her mother massaged her daughter’s limbs every three hours, even in the middle of the night, to keep her muscles from atrophying. Eventually Ann Lee endured eight surgeries, many of which were unsuccessful.“In those days, doctors didn’t always know what they were doing,” she says. She regularly wore a leg brace, and she was confined to a wheelchair after each surgery.
Ann Lee realized that she was not the same as other children. When she lost her balance and fell over, her four older, healthy siblings would rush to pick her up. “But other kids could be very mean. They would imitate the way I walked,” she recalls. “I remember that in fourth grade, I decked a girl for doing it. She never made fun of me again.”
The social ostracism grew worse as she got older. During a dance in the gymnasium when Ann Lee was about 12, students were playing a game in which the girls each tossed a shoe into the middle of the gym. “A boy who liked you would pick it up and bring it back to you and ask you to dance,” says Ann Lee. “My clunky orthopedic shoe was the only one that didn’t get picked up. I was sitting in the bleachers with one bare foot and couldn’t walk down to get it. A boy finally handed it to me, but he didn’t ask me to dance.”
She didn’t date in high school. Her first serious relationship started when she was 22. It was with Michael Nazemetz, now her husband of nearly 30 years.
Right from the beginning, Michael was accepting of her, says Ann Lee: “He has always treated me as an equal in our relationship. With him, I can even manage a slow dance. Although I admit, now and then I wish I could wear pretty shoes with heels to do it.”
Although she was technically able to have children, the couple never did. “Michael was concerned about whether I would be able to carry a baby to term. Many polio victims do have children, of course. But it depends on the severity of the disease, which can affect the strength of your pelvic muscles. And I wouldn’t be able to run after a toddler.”
Her condition presented obstacles to a career as well. Ann Lee wanted to be a nurse, but her longtime orthopedist advised against it: too much standing involved. “I still regret listening to that advice,” she says. Instead, she became a veterinary technician, and she shares a practice with Michael, who is a veterinarian. “I tried to be open to new opportunities—and I’m glad I was. One was waiting for me right around the corner.”