Whip Remembers Mom’s Role in Polio Fight

Posted April 12, 2005 at 6:25pm

Most people prefer the ease of walking down a flight of stairs rather than trudging up a set of steps. For a change, Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is in the minority.

Given the option, McConnell favors the uphill climb, and when available he takes an elevator down rather than navigate a staircase because, having been afflicted with the once-deadly disease polio as a child, he finds that stepping up is a lot easier.

He is one of the tens of thousands of children who contracted the disease in the mid-20th century, before Jonas Salk developed a vaccine that eventually led to polio’s eradication in the United States. On Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of Salk’s discovery, McConnell recounted the tale of his childhood on the Senate floor and in an interview.

In 1944, 11 years before Salk found the vaccine, McConnell was struck at age 2 by polio as it attacked his left quadricep. Had it not been for a mother committed to helping him overcome the disease, the Kentucky Republican said he would have gone through life relying on a leg brace to walk.

“It wouldn’t have been the end of my life, but I would have had a very different life in terms of my mobility,” McConnell said in an interview Tuesday following his Senate floor speech.

His mother was determined to help her young child walk freely, McConnell said, and she devoted two years of her life to see that happen. The Kentucky Senator said his mother administered physical therapy to him three times a day and drove him to Warm Springs, Ga., to receive professional advice from the same therapists who were treating the nation’s best-known polio victim: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But it was her diligence in preventing him from walking during those two critical years of rehabilitation that marvels him to this day.

“They told my mother that she needed to keep me from walking,” McConnell said during his Senate floor speech. “Now, imagine this, you’re the mother of a 2-year-old boy, and we all know how anxious little boys are to get around and get into trouble. So, my mother convinced me that I could walk, but I couldn’t walk.”

His mother’s determination to help him overcome the disease has proved to be the most important lesson he has learned in life, the Kentuckian said.

“I have always had the feeling it was sort of an early lesson in adversity, how to overcome adversity and that discipline and hard work can sometimes produce favorable results,” he said in the interview. “Adversity does happen. You can either be defeated by it or you can dig in and work hard, and the chances are pretty darn good that you can overcome most things that happen to you.”

It is a lesson he said probably has helped him in a political career that spans from his time as a locally elected official to the Senate.

“I think I had that lesson a little earlier in life than most people; if they learn it at all, they learn it a little bit later,” he said. “There were a lot of tough campaigns where I think that early lesson probably applied.”

Fittingly, McConnell’s first memory is of the last visit to Warm Springs, which is located about 50 miles away from the small Alabama town where his mother lived while his father served in the military.

“We had left Warm Springs for the last time and the physical therapist there had told my mother, ‘Your son can walk now,’” McConnell recounted in his floor speech. “‘We think he is going to have a normal childhood and a normal life.’ And we stopped at a shoe store in LaGrange [Ga.] and bought a pair of saddle boxers, low-top shoes.

“Thanks to my mother, I had a normal childhood,” he said.