Images of Humanity and a Night of Triumph

The images are from another place and time, grainy, black and white photos among an archive of American experiences from “back in the day” and they appear in my mind when I think about the word “polio.” One of these ancient photos is of a warehouse-sized room filled with row after row of capsules each containing a person, like some strange 1950s era sci-fi movie. Dozens of nurses in old-style uniforms and caps are buzzing around the tubes. The capsules have viewing windows, access ports, gauges and dials and at one end a pressurized seal where each patient’s head extends outside the tube. The scores of tubes in the image are iron-lungs, the much feared last resort treatment for the thousands and thousands of Americans afflicted with polio who, because of paralysis, were unable to breath on their own. Their lives were extended through the pumps that provided negative air pressure, taking over the function of their ineffective diaphragms.

This image, however, is not so ancient in the American experience, some relic of the 1940s and 1950s. Less than two years ago the last iron-lung patient in the United States passed away in her home in Tennessee. Dianne Odell of Jackson, who contracted polio four years before the vaccine was created, had survived thanks to an iron-lung for 61 years until thunderstorms knocked out power and the backup source failed.

Rotary International NightDianne worked hard to battle the limitations polio and the iron-lung placed on her life. She attended college, wrote a children’s book and volunteered as a phone counselor for people battling their own hardships, according to a story of her experiences on the Rotary International web site. Her connection with Rotary was her battle against polio and her childhood friend Sheila Campbell, a Rotarian from Tullahoma. In 2002 the Rotary Club of Jackson honored Dianne as a Paul Harris Fellow at a meeting held in her home. Dianne was supportive of Rotary’s battle against polio and, according to her friend Sheila, she was optimistic that someday the disease that stole much of her life would be eradicated.

So what is the relevance in 2011 of a disease from so far back in the minds of Americans as polio, and of iron-lungs, and Rotary clubs. It is this. Rotary clubs have had as Job One on the mutual agenda of 1.2 million members in 33,000 clubs around the world, the global eradication of this disabling and sometimes fatal affliction. When Rotarians began their unified push against polio in 1985, three decades after the lifesaving vaccine had been created, there were 350,000 cases in 125 countries. Now with Rotary working with health organizations and governments around the world there are four last bastions where polio is endemic: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. There are outbreaks elsewhere that are tamped down, but there are just four countries where the disease is persistent, and serve as the final battleground for polio eradication.

And how is this relevant to people in Cookeville? The two Rotary clubs here are among those whose members have been contributing regularly for years to wipe out polio. Two years ago these clubs, with their 1.2 million fellow Rotarians, were challenged by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to raise money, beyond their regular Polio Plus program donations, for the final push to eradicate polio. The first year was a $100 million matching challenge. That was followed by the Gates Foundation putting up $255 million to be met with another $100 million from Rotarians. That money, over a half billion dollars, will be the ammunition in the final campaign. And until the specter of polio is wiped out there remains the danger that it can return with a vengeance to places where it had been eliminated. More than 10 million children are at risk for paralysis from polio over the next 40 years if we don’t get the job done.

Last year, to meet the polio challenge, the Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club, launched an annual event to both extend the polio eradication fund raising effort to the community and to carry out one of Rotary’s missions, to build global understanding and peace. The first International Night last January raised much needed funds to fight polio while providing an exciting evening of fellowship, good food and entertainment, focused on the honored country of India.

This year the second International Night is set for January 29th at the Clarion Inn in Cookeville and will again raise funds for the final battle against polio and other international humanitarian works of Rotary. This year the Tennessee Tech Saudi Students Club is working with the Rotarians to present their country’s cuisine, history, culture and dancing along with distinguished visitors invited as after dinner speakers. It will be a great evening to celebrate what people in Cookeville are doing to make a difference in the world. It is not often that you can have dinner and be entertained and go home thinking that you have just joined the ranks of the world’s great “polio eradicators.” Will you be there?

— Patrick Ryan is a writer and Rotarian from Cookeville, Tennessee. Information and ticket ordering for Rotary International Night are available at, click on the “International Night” button.

Editor’s Note:  Also check out “What is the Saudi Connection to Cookeville, Tennessee?” posted by blog on January 16, 2011