Fighting harder

Register file photo: Mark Sternhagen is shown in 2016 with a copy of his autobiography, “Normal for Me.”

Sternhagen talks about polio epidemic and his fight to get kids vaccinated

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part report about Mark Sternhagen and World Polio Day.

BROOKINGS – Mark Sternhagen said his doctor knew right away he had polio, at 18 months old in August 1957, and had him transferred to Sacred Heart in Yankton.

“Polio … affects the central nervous system. What it does is it only affects the motor neurons which are the ones that make your muscles move. So my muscles, technically, still exist, but the little wires that send signals to them to tell them to move aren’t all there and polio basically tries to destroy those,” Sternhagen said.

“One of the tells back then was if you laid the patient on their back, and if they couldn’t lift their head enough to see their belly button, that was a good indicator that it was polio,” he said.

“All I remember is intense pain, which is typical of polio,” he said. “I was probably very sick for two or three weeks.

“In my case, it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. Eventually, I got to the point where all I could do was move my head just a little bit side to side … and I could move from my right wrist down, but just enough to wave bye-bye to my mom, so that was at its worst point with me,” Sternhagen said.

“And then you slowly kind of come back from that at some point,” he said.

He has no memory of it but has been told he spent some time in an iron lung, a mechanical respirator that stimulates breathing. He remembers seeing people in iron lungs. 

Sternhagen spent the next year – from age 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 – in Omaha for rehabilitation.

“I basically went home, I think that my Mom said, for Christmas and that was all,” Sternhagen said. He’s gone back a few times for surgeries and other treatments, but that first year in Omaha was important.

“You’re gonna get back most of what you’re ever gonna get back in that first year,” Sternhagen said.

Lingering effects

Having survived the initial onslaught and done his rehab, Sternhagen was left with paralysis. How much paralysis a patient has depends on how much damage the neurons sustain.

“It varies with every single person. I don’t know two polio survivors that have the exact same after-effects,” he said.

He needed help walking, so he used leg braces and crutches. By the time he started school, he was down to a single leg brace and military crutches that attached to his forearms. Even so, he did everything for himself.

He only attended the Scotland, South Dakota, school through third grade, but remembers facing problems because of his polio, even from teachers.

“The teachers didn’t have any training (to handle a student who was different),” Sternhagen said. “Quite honestly, a couple of them at least, resented … just the fact that I was there. … And I knew that they did.”

He says people who have disabilities tend to be more aware of tells like body language because they spend so much of their lives sitting on the sidelines observing. 

“People tend to think, at least at that time, very much so, if you were physically handicapped, you were also mentally handicapped, so they kind of treated me that way, to some extent,” Sternhagen said.

He remembers the class being assigned the task of memorizing a four-line poem, which they had to recite in front of the class.

He memorized the poem and got himself to the front of the class.

“Up to that point, I was the only one who didn’t need any prompting with their poem. I just rattled it off,” Sternhagen said. “I did it perfectly and the teacher was literally shocked. She thought I was using some sort of trick or something. I’m sure she thought that I just wasn’t bright enough to be able to do that.”

Contributing to that problem is that he didn’t do homework. When asked why back then, Sternhagen would say he didn’t know.

“The reason was simple – it was very difficult to carry my books home and so I didn’t,” he said. “There was no way I was gonna say I can’t carry my books home … so I would rather look stupid than have to say, ‘I’m crippled, I can’t carry my books.’”

He transferred to what was then known as Crippled Children’s Hospital and School in Sioux Falls. It would later become Children’s Care and is now part of LifeScape, he said. He’s served on LifeScape’s board of directors.

Sternhagen almost exclusively uses a wheelchair these days and blames “orneriness” for that.

“I was so ornery that I fought the wheelchair with every fiber of my being. … If I had been smarter rather than ornery and had started using the wheelchair part-time earlier – I’m not sure I could still walk today, but I … certainly could’ve walked quite a bit longer,” Sternhagen said.

It’s not just his legs that have paid a price: he “did a number on my right arm and my right shoulder … I do have pretty good carpal tunnel issues. That isn’t exactly polio’s fault but walking on crutches … really kind of made it much worse than it would’ve been.”

Never stopped him

Sternhagen has a complicated relationship with the disease that has had such a profound effect on his life. 

“A couple of years ago, I happened to be up on campus, and someone said, ‘You must really hate God for what He did to you,’” Sternhagen said, then laughed. “I’m like, ‘God didn’t do nothing to me.’ I don’t hate God; I don’t blame God for what happened. It just happened.”

A friend of his is Billie Sutton, the former South Dakota senator who was paralyzed in a rodeo accident when he was 23.

“He said he wouldn’t go back and change what happened to him because it made him a much better human being … If I’d have a chance to go back and get vaccinated, I sure as hell would,” Sternhagen said.

“But I do believe that it definitely has made me a better person, and more empathetic and thoughtful person than I probably would have been,” he added.

He doesn’t feel it’s held him back and may have even propelled him to achieve what he has. Sternhagen has earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, taught at SDSU for 33 years, worked with computers on the side, and he’s written a couple of books.

“I cannot imagine that I would have done any of that had I not had polio,” he said. “I do think that it did a lot to make me who I am.”

He’s found out that people with polio “tend to be healthier than normal,” and they also tend to be over-achievers and to fight harder, using Roosevelt as an example.

“One of the things that made him truly great was the fact that he had polio. It wasn’t that he did everything in spite of it, but a lot of that greatness was because of it,” Sternhagen said.

“I definitely believe that it made me become more than I would have been,” Sternhagen said.

World Polio Day

Fighting harder is something Sternhagen still does. 

He spreads the word about vaccinations, employing those who have disabilities, and recognizing World Polio Day (Oct. 24). He spoke about all three at the Brookings City Council meeting Oct. 13.

“Disabled workers are an important part of the community and the success of this country and this community, but also very often, the disabled workers are some of the first to be let go when there’s tough economic times and the last to be rehired,” he said.

Sternhagen said he couldn’t imagine “how horrible” it was to look for a job as a person who had disabilities 75 years ago.

“I know what it was like 45 years ago, when I first started looking for employment. And I had to be way over-qualified to just be able to get the job,” Sternhagen said.

“That’s gotten a lot better, but we’ve got a long ways to go,” he said.

“Even in the last few years, I have personally seen and been part of problems associated with being disabled and being employed,” Sternhagen said.

He added that the Committee for People who Have Disabilities are working hard and will be presenting awards in the future: the Able Award and the Empower Award for businesses who are actively working to employ the disabled.

The group had made cookies and sticky notes available at the council meeting with the slogan #whatifitwasme? to get people to think about being in the shoes of people who have disabilities.

“Think about the disabled,” Sternhagen said. “I want you to feel empathy and realize it could have been any of you sitting here.”

Although the U.S. hasn’t had a polio case since 1979, vaccinations are still an important topic, and he uses World Polio Day to talk about it.

“I do think it’s very significant – World Polio Day – I think that it’s more significant now than it has been in a very long time, and part of that is the COVID thing,” Sternhagen said. 

“I honestly feel our … only way to get back to some kind of normal is with a vaccine. It gives me a lot of hope to know that one of the places working on a vaccine is the University of Pennsylvania in the Salk laboratories, where the polio vaccine was created,” Sternhagen said. 

“That gives me a lot of hope,” he said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at [email protected]

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