Harp, Polio Survivor, Tips Hat To The Rotary

Paul Bass PhotoHer mom said thanks by stuffing envelopes. Toni Harp said thanks, decades later, by telling a story. Her story.

Toni Harp, New Haven’s mayor, told her story, about surviving polio at age 4, to the Rotary Club at its weekly lunch meeting Tuesday at the Graduate Club.

The group had asked Harp to tell a story of how she had overcome an obstacle or unforeseen challenge. She chose the subject of polio—in part because the Rotary Club was one of the groups that worked to wipe out the disease across most of the globe.

When Harp was 4, kids still got polio in the United States. She was living in Salt Lake City at the time. She wasn’t expected to walk again, if she were to survive the disease. With the help of older sisters, Harp not only survived, but did regain the ability to walk.

She told the 25 or so people gathered for the Rotary lunch that she has a few distinct memories of the disease. She remembers the hot, damp wool blankets that nurses wrapped around her legs several times a day in the hospital—part of polio care, at the time. “It’s an awful smell,” Harp remarked. To this day, “Whenever I smell wet wool,” she remembers the nurses wrapping her legs.

She recalled being put inside an iron lung, a machine that forced the patient to breathe, with only her head sticking out. She still remembers the burn marks on her neck, from contact with the iron lung. Without the help of that machine she said, “I wouldn’t be alive today.”

And she remembered finally being able to skip with both legs. She was 9 at the time. It had taken more than four years to catch up with the other kids. “That’s really important when you’re a kid. Everybody else could skip,” she said. In the end, she said, family, community and prayer got her through the disease, saved her life.

Though both of Harp’s parents worked, they didn’t have enough money to pay for her hospitalization. A charitable civic group, the March of Dimes, helped pay the bill. Afterwards, to show her gratitude, Harp’s mom stuffed envelopes for the organization’s fund-raising mailings.

Harp noted the Rotary Club’s own role for decades in supporting efforts to wipe out polio, which is now found in just three countries.

“Thank you for the work you did for all the people on this earth who are no longer afflicted with this disease,” she said.

John Karavas (pictured), president of the New Haven Rotary Club, said the organization is pushing ahead to try to help eradicate polio altogether. (Click here to learn more about that.)

Harp completed her remarks by filling in the business-oriented group on New Haven’s efforts to boost the economy by reconnecting downtown with the Hill neighborhood (the “Hill-to-Downtown” plan) and through neighborhood commercial corridors like Dixwell, Congress, Grand, and Whalley avenues. She said she expects a final consultant’s report “any day now” with advice on how to accomplish the latter goal in the style of “Main Street Initiatives.”

Then she stuck around to schmooze with the Rotarians.

Click here for a previous story about Harp’s Utah upbringing. Click on the video to watch Harp describe her polio experience, at last July’s Democratic Town Committee convention.

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