Paul Jeganathan, Kirkland, Washington
2020 marks 75 years since I contracted polio—I fell ill on New Year’s Day, 1945, at the age of four and half. On May 28th, I turned 80 years old. Yes, I’m still here!
We planned a big birthday celebration with international guests and a cruise to Alaska. Then COVID-19 descended and abruptly ended those plans. However, my wife and daughters organized an alternative celebration which was, in my opinion, a great success! Family and friends sent video greetings from around the world. It was meaningful to hear from so many loved ones including my four-year-old great grandniece. My immediate family and I shared a dinner followed by curbside birthday visits where extended family drove by and greeted me from a safe distance. They dropped off gifts and received packets of delicious food prepared by my wife as party favors to make up for the fact that we weren't able to gather around a table as we normally would. I feel a great sense of gratitude to have celebrated 80 years of life, particularly when I consider the fact that I narrowly escaped death at the age of four. Hey, I’m still here!
This pandemic and resultant social distancing brings back memories of the decade long isolation I experienced after contracting polio. Due to my diagnosis I was denied access to school until the age of 14. I had to remain home, missing out on significant experiences: the learning, friendships, and fun of school that other children my age enjoyed. Others seem to observe other parallels as well. After attending one of my presentations, a writer later reflected, “As I think about my own understanding of history in relation to Paul’s lecture, there are some eerie similarities between the world of the mid-20th century, when polio had its day in the sun, and the early 21st century, when another invisible enemy evokes great trepidation.”
We're still here. Despite the trepidation, doubts, and fear brought on by the pandemic, opportunities for connection remain. I make a sincere effort to remain in contact with others with the help of modern technology and tools. I mainly stay connected with four groups of people: my family, my post-polio support group, my church family, and the people in the organizations with whom I volunteer.
Keeping in close touch with family is of great importance to me. Professor Anthony Brandt says, “Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family.” How true! The only face-to-face connection I have is with my immediate family. One of my daughters came home from out of state due to the shutdown. My other daughter and her family live nearby, and I look forward to their weekly visits. Who can blame me for being happy to see and interact with my precious grandson?!
I also regularly speak with my siblings, all of whom are also senior citizens. Four of my siblings live locally and one on the East Coast. In pre-pandemic days, our calls were somewhat simple with the routine “Hello?” and “How are you?”, but the pandemic has changed all that. We do not talk about the COVID as much as we did in earlier months; now conversations are longer and cover general health and welfare, updates on daily activities, and current events.
Talking about family history is something we enjoy immensely. Mainly, we try to piece together bits of information and construct a family story which none of us fully know. There is also always some gossip, banter and teasing. Recently, I prompted my sisters to write down various proverbs and sayings from our early years in India. This has been a fun activity that has challenged our aging brains! We correct each other, share what we have written, and laugh about the funny and not so clean ones. Most conversations with my siblings end with words of encouragement and a reminder that we all should have grateful hearts for the good health and financial stability that allow us to maintain a favorable quality of life as we age.
The folks in my local post-polio support group are, in many ways, my other family. I call them my polio pals. Keeping in touch with other polio survivors is something I prioritize. Although my calls to them are somewhat sporadic, they always result in satisfying conversations. I especially value calls with our group leader, a very dedicated, empathetic person. We share news from members of the group, discuss plans for the future, and exchange ideas for activities when the pandemic is over and we can come together again. Even with our aging and post-polio challenges, we’re still here.
I also stay connected with my church family, which is very important to me. We have online worship every Sunday and Bible Study every Wednesday. During the pandemic, volunteers make weekly calls on Thursdays to senior citizens and other church members who are considered vulnerable. I welcome these calls which are a great way to stay in touch with my church friends.
I also stay connected through my involvement in the church’s Disability Inclusion Ministry. We communicate often to discuss matters concerning our work. I also correspond with the Men’s Fellowship leader to plan our annual retreat in Spring 2021 and to recruit volunteers for a non-profit I support.
Volunteering provides a wonderful way to stay connected with my larger community. I started volunteering when I was in my twenties and over the years it has grown into a true passion, so much so that I coined the motto, “I am Restless to Serve”. Two organizations to which I’m committed are Bridge Disability Ministries and Solid Ground.
Bridge Disability Ministries is a non-profit based in Washington that is classified as a provider of essential services and their work has continued during the pandemic. In fact, it’s more critical now than ever. I stay in contact with their staff, other volunteers and the board via Zoom. Besides regular business, we also enjoy small talk and checking on each other which helps reduce the sense of isolation. I helped organize their annual fundraiser held in September which kept me busy and connected. I am also involved in a project where volunteers prepare and deliver care packages to our clients, many of whom reside in care facilities and are experiencing increased isolation due to pandemic related restrictions. Making phone calls to these volunteers allows me to engage with my community.
Solid Ground, is one of the largest senior volunteer networks in the nation. As an RSVP Ambassador (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) I’ve had to modify how I work with them during the pandemic by trading in-person opportunities with Zoom meetings and emails between volunteers and staff. Regular updates on Solid Ground’s activities keeps me inspired and helps me grow my volunteering network. The interactions I’ve had with the exceptional people at these organizations have been energizing and meaningful in the midst of an otherwise isolating time.
I am thankful I’ve found ways to stay connected with others during these strange times which would be impossible without my family and my various communities. I am deeply satisfied with how I’m staying involved and engaged. Inevitably, I ask myself what I can do better and how long I can keep doing it. Trying to find answers to these questions is not easy and I tell myself to keep going as long as I can. I remind myself that the journey from 1945 to 2020 has been long and arduous, but not impossible because I’m still here. I’m certain I’m not alone in this sentiment and am sure many other polio survivors have experiences like mine—and that’s why we’re still here.