50 Years After Treatment on the SS HOPE, Thriving Patient Tells Her Story
I owe a big debt of gratitude to the HOPE Ship program and the people who staffed it.
I contracted polio in April 1962 during Easter weekend. I was 10 years old and in the fourth grade. While I was in the hospital, doctors from the SS HOPE began to arrive in my hometown of Trujillo, Peru in the state of La Libertad. They were preparing for the arrival of the ship itself. My father requested one of the doctors to see me and to talk about the possibility of me getting treatment in the ship that was to arrive shortly.
After one month in the hospital, and two months at home (I had to be isolated from my siblings for a total of 3 months), I was taken to the HOPE ship by ambulance. I still could not sit at all. I was paralyzed from head to toe. The only thing I could do was move my head. I was fortunate to not need an iron lung. I could breathe on my own. It was mid-July when I was admitted to the ship, and I left four days before the ship and medical crew left Peru on February 14, 1963.
While in the ship, I had physical therapy every day. I went from being flat on my back to being able to sit up in a wheelchair, with help, of course. A few weeks after I arrived, I was able to feed myself. My mother was given special permission to come see me every day. She would take a bus from downtown Trujillo to the port of Salaverry (about half hour ride), then she would take a tender to the HOPE ship. She would come daily without fail, except on visiting days — Wednesdays and Sundays — when my father would come.
I was in the women’s ward: C5. My bed was on the opposite corner of the entrance to the ward. A few months after my arrival, I became the “official” bingo announcer. We played bingo once a week. The nurses taught me how to play checkers and I became such an avid player and got to be so good that at the end no one wanted to play with me. I enjoyed going to the weekly movies in English, even though I didn’t understand much. On sunny days we’d go to the stern or the bow of the ship for fresh air.
Before the SS HOPE left Peru, one of the physiatrist on ship, Dr. Nancy Kester, made arrangements for me to go to Gonzales Rehabilitation Center in Gonzales, Texas for treatment with her colleague and friend, Dr. Marjorie Kirkpatrick, director of the center. I stayed at the center for 17 months. During my stay, I went to physical therapy and occupational therapy twice a day. I learned to transfer to and from bed and toilet, get dressed, and walk short distances with braces and crutches, mainly for exercise. I also went to school. I didn’t speak much English when I arrived, but went from a third-grade reading level to seventh-grade reading level before I returned to Peru.
In February 1965, my mother came to Gonzales, TX to take me home. The physical therapist taught my mom the exercises she should do with me every day.
My parents and family continued to help me with my physical therapy, and also supported me with my education. I finished high school in December 1969 studying from my sister Ana’s notes and taking exams at school every two months. In a class of about 35 girls, I finished near the top of my class.
I went on to graduate with a double major in English and Spanish from the then Pan American University (now The University of Texas-Pan American) in Edinburg, Texas, earned my M.A. in Foreign Language Education and high school teaching certificate from The University of Texas at Austin in 1977, compiled and arranged publication of an accessibility guide for the University of Texas at Austin in 1980.
From 1980-1984, I taught Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin as an Assistant Instructor. After trying for four years, I was finally given a chance to teach a class. I was the first “disabled” Assistant Instructor in the department. During that time, I also learned to drive a van with customized hand controls.
I earned my Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education from The University of Texas at Austin in 1984, and taught Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin as lecturer and worked at Austin Community College as adjunct faculty until 2002.
Currently, I work as a Spanish Tutoring Specialist at Austin Community college, and manage a small startup company, xThink, Inc., a handwriting recognition software for math, based in Round Rock, Texas. Periodically, I translate, edit, trans-adapt materials from English to Spanish for various publishing companies.
I’ve had many other wonderful experiences, including marrying my husband Matt Lesher in 1991. I owe a big debt of gratitude to the HOPE Ship program and the people who staffed it. They played a pivotal role in my success. For that I am very grateful.