Virus No Match for Fighting Doctor

All the recent news about the dreaded Ebola virus got me thinking about how my physician-father overcame another virus-one that nearly wrecked his medical career just when it was taking off. And if he had not beaten this illness so long ago, I wouldn't be alive to tell this story.

“There is no education like adversity.”

—Benjamin Disraeli

All the recent news about the dreaded Ebola virus got me thinking about how my physician-father overcame another virus—one that nearly wrecked his medical career just when it was taking off.

And if he had not beaten this illness so long ago, I wouldn’t be alive to tell this story.

In the late 1950s my dad was a very busy doctor—and husband and father. He had been in practice on the Jersey Shore for fewer than 5 years with his brother-in-law, Dr. George Sheehan, Jr. Married to my mother for about 6 years, the couple had 5 children under age 5. Our family then included my sisters, Claire, Alice, (they being “Irish Twins”), Shannon and Sheila, and my brother, Owen.

It was Encephalitis that had stricken my father. My brother Owen, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, said dad might have been infected from a routine flu shot at the hospital where he worked. However, his doctors were never able to determine the exact cause, and even today more than half of all Encephalitis cases go undiagnosed. Still, their judgment was that dad was doomed to immobility.

So it was that my father, a doctor and father not even 40 years old, was rendered paralyzed from the waist down. Told that he would be confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of life, with no hope of walking and or having more children, dad’s battle cry became: “I’m a doctor with a wife and 5 children—I’m walking again.”

Summoning a fortitude and discipline that still amazes me even now, dad struggled but recovered. Employing a vigorous exercise program, help from valued friends, and a wife who loved him and respected his career, he got back on his feet and more.

My memoires of dad’s recuperation include him walking in great pain, wearing lead-weighted shoes to build strength, and jumping rope at the crack of dawn.

Two men in particular helped my father along his hard road to healing. A neighbor of ours, Bill Health, took an active interest in helping dad. Mr. Heath regularly transported my dad to his vital physical therapy sessions and then on to the hospital and medical office for his work. Mr. Heath went on to become a great friend and mentor to me. And the guy even gave me my first job.

One of dad’s physician colleagues, Dr. John Sinnott, Jr., pushed dad hard to get out and work his body (mostly through golf). An Ivy League-trained surgeon, Dr. Sinnott was a guy who didn’t take no for an answer. Years later, dad would succeed his friend as the president of our local hospital’s medical staff.

And most important, certainly from my perspective, dad would go on to have 3 more children, including me.