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.

By Jan Goodwin
Updated April 25, 2012
Ann Lee Hussey
Mary Ellen Mark

Every day, there is pain. Ann Lee Hussey’s right leg is an inch and a half shorter than her left, causing her to limp. Her feet are misshapen, and her joints and muscles ache so badly by the end of the day that it’s tough to go to sleep.

And yet within the last decade this 58-year-old has made 20 trips to some of the most rugged and dangerous places in the world—Mali, Nigeria, Chad. Each time, she leads a team of one to two dozen volunteers with the same ambitious goal: to immunize as many children as possible, thereby ensuring that they will not contract polio, an infectious viral disease that can attack nerves and cause paralysis. It’s the same ailment that has wreaked havoc on Ann Lee’s life. “I get exhausted sometimes, but then I remember: I never want another child to endure what I’ve gone through,” she says.

Polio is not something most Americans think about anymore. Thanks to the vaccine, it has been eliminated in the United States (though there was a small outbreak in 2005). And as recently as 2010 it was on track to become the second disease afflicting humans (after smallpox) to be wiped out entirely. However, as of last year, 16 countries still reported cases of this incurable disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ann Lee is determined to keep those numbers from climbing. But it’s not easy. She believes that she is afflicted with post-polio syndrome (PPS), a progressive condition that causes muscular weakness, pain, and exhaustion for up to 25 percent of polio sufferers.

PPS can affect the nerves that control muscles and contribute to the rapid aging of those muscles, according to the CDC. “I’m afraid of PPS,” says Ann Lee. “But I try not to let the fear control me.” Near her home in South Berwick, Maine, she practices yoga, gets massages, and swims to help herself cope with the symptoms. And she endeavors to stay upbeat: “I’m not a ‘woe is me’ person. I live in the moment. And I believe in what I’m doing. Sometimes I think I got polio for a reason. It has given me more drive, more determination.”

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.”

Coming to the Rescue

Indeed, Ann Lee discovered her current mission by accident. Back in 2000, she accompanied Michael, a longtime member of Rotary International, the global organization dedicated to humanitarian efforts, to an event. There she learned about the group’s work combating hunger, improving health and sanitation, and eradicating polio. “For the first time, I realized how involved the group was in fighting the disease. Later I went to a Rotary information session about their immunization trips to developing countries, and I signed up immediately.”

On the excursions, UNICEF and the World Health Organization supply the vaccines and Rotary provides volunteers who administer them. Rotary also alerts local communities that the vaccination team will be in the area. Like all the volunteers, Ann Lee pays her own travel expenses.

In 2001 she embarked on her first polio-immunization trip, to Delhi, India. “I was pretty nervous,” she says. “I had only been out of the country once, when I went to Canada. The flight seemed so long; India was so exotic.”

The experience was eye-opening: “Moms walked for miles with their children, then lined up by the hundreds—all to get their kids vaccinated,” Ann Lee recalls. She knew then that she would be making many more of these journeys. “Since there’s no cure for this disease, prevention is everything,” she says.

On that trip, Ann Lee also found herself drawn to helping the survivors of polio, who live extraordinarily challenging lives. At a local rehabilitation center, staff members paraded out a group of child polio victims to show Ann Lee and the other volunteers how they assist them with braces and crutches.

“One of the kids was a little girl of about nine, with a beautiful smile that I can still see today,” says Ann Lee. “She had the same thin, wasted leg that I had and wore the same heavy brace that I did at that age. Looking at her, the memories were overwhelming. I lost it and started to cry. No child should have polio today. Not when it is preventable by a few oral drops that cost just 60 cents.”

Ann Lee’s commitment to polio sufferers has only grown stronger over the years. In February 2008, she met a young Nigerian girl, Uma, 11. In her rural village, Uma did not receive the physical therapy and the leg braces that she needed. Consequently, her pelvis was too weak to support her spine and she was unable to stand upright. Her hands were severely calloused because she crawled around on all fours, as polio survivors are often forced to do in poor nations.

“Many polio survivors in these countries are treated like dogs,” says Ann Lee. “They are physically and mentally abused and forced to beg to survive. Or they’re locked away. Few women who have had polio will ever marry.”

Uma longed to go to school, but the nearest one was eight miles away. Local children hiked there and back every day. Uma, of course, wasn’t capable of making the trip. Ann Lee, moved by Uma’s plight, took action. On subsequent trips, in November 2008 and March 2009, Ann Lee relentlessly charmed and lobbied the local governor until a school was built in Uma’s village. The next time she returned, in September 2010, she was gratified to find a large sign in front of the two-classroom building: ann lee nomadic school for the fulani tribe. Nearly 300 children, not just polio victims, now attend that school.

Meeting Countless Challenges

That sort of success helps Ann Lee get through the immunization trips, which can be punishing, both physically and emotionally. The weather is often scorching: Mali, 115 degrees; Nigeria, 110. The terrain is unforgiving; Ann Lee has navigated through millet fields, over rickety bridges, and through slums. She has dealt with bedbugs, food poisoning, and numerous bumps and scrapes.

In some more volatile locations, there is also the threat of violence. In Mali, just after Ann Lee visited in November 2011, three foreign tourists were kidnapped and one was killed, possibly by a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. In Nigeria, where she often travels, ethnic clashes between Muslims and Christians have triggered multiple massacres.

What’s more, she and her team have to convince locals that they are there truly to do good. In northern Nigeria a few years ago, Ann Lee says, some religious clerics spread the word that the American vaccine would render children infertile. To prove to the villagers that there was nothing to fear, volunteers made a show of taking the oral drops themselves before inoculating the kids. “I have had women come to me in secret, asking to have their children immunized—as long as their husbands never find out,” Ann Lee says.

During the immunization trips, Ann Lee finds that locals do not believe Americans can have polio, “because we live in a rich country,” she says. “But when I roll up my pants and show them my legs, it’s obvious. I explain that Americans didn’t always have the vaccine. And I explain why we need to protect their children.”

Seeking Lasting Change

On just one trip to Nigeria, Ann Lee and her team immunized 10,655 children. Yet she is modest about her accomplishments. “I’m an ordinary woman, not Mother Teresa,” she says. “If I’ve touched thousands of lives, so have the American volunteers who come with me—including a woman of 86 who was a real trouper. For me, and I think for them as well, it’s a privilege to do this work.”

Her dream now is to return to Nigeria and build a rehabilitation center for those afflicted with polio: “With help, polio victims can get up off all fours. We can help them stand upright and give them back their dignity.” She has $350,000 to raise, but characteristically she isn’t daunted by the prospect of coming up with that vast sum. She has conquered worse odds. Plus, she knows that change can happen. She thinks back on her last visit to Nigeria, which she made about a year and a half ago.

“This time I was able to see Uma in her classroom,” says Ann Lee excitedly. “She called out to me in English and said she was so happy to finally be in school. Before, she and I had always spoken through an interpreter. We were both thrilled by how far she had come.”

It seems fitting, then, that Ann Lee ends her e-mails with a famous quotation from Jonas Salk himself: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”

Learn about the United Nation Foundation’s Shot@Life Campaign, and how you can help this vaccine program.