Lifted Above Limitations

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One of the most difficult challenges that a person can face is to rise above his or her limitations. We all face them, but one of the most daunting limitations is a lack of physical mobility that can keep a person from enjoying the full spectrum of life in the very physical world in which we live. In the early twentieth century, there was a New York politician who suffered such a loss of mobility. The loss seemed to end his political ambitions, but it actually marked the start of an amazing comeback. This politician failed to just accept his condition. He began a struggle that would eventually enable him to claim the greatest prize sought by any American politician. He is remembered today as one of America’s greatest presidents. He was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This is the story of his personal battle to overcome polio and how he forged the determined spirit that would prove so vital in steering the country through some of its darkest moments.

From his earliest days, Franklin Roosevelt seemed to have all the advantages in life that were necessary to achieve whatever he wanted. Born to a well-to-do family in January 1882, he was a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. In his youth, he travelled with his parents not only to Europe and several foreign capitols but more importantly, as it turned out, to Washington, D.C. where he even met President Grover Cleveland. He and his parents also spent most summers on the Canadian island of Campobello, off the coast of Maine. At fourteen he entered the elite preparatory school of Groton before attending Harvard University, where he was editor-in-chief of the university newspaper. In March 1905, he married his distant cousin and Theodore’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt. Five years later he entered politics as a New York state senator. In 1912, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In that position, he orchestrated naval operations during World War I and even visited the frontlines in France. After the war, he joined Ohio Governor James Cox as the vice presidential candidate during the 1920 election. To that point, his rise was meteoric. Unlike his cousin Theodore, however, Franklin lost his bid, and it was not long before he suffered another blow that seemed to end his political career altogether.

On July 28, 1921, Franklin Roosevelt journeyed up the Hudson River to join a group of Boy Scouts at one of their annual gatherings. He then travelled to the family’s summer retreat on Campobello Island to join his family. On the journey he appeared overly tired, but upon his arrival, he insisted on participating in strenuous family activities. On the afternoon of August 10, just three days after he had arrived, an exhausted Franklin sat down to read the mail before being overtaken by a severe chill. Thinking it simply a cold, he lay down to sleep but remained cold. By morning, his condition had worsened to include a high temperature and the loss of use in his legs. His family doctor was sent for, but like Franklin had, he simply diagnosed it as a cold. Next, a well-known surgeon who had operated on President Cleveland visited, but he considered it to be a blood clot in the spinal cord. Not satisfied by either opinion, Eleanor summoned Dr. Robert Lovett, an orthopedic doctor with a specialty in infantile paralysis, more commonly called polio. Lovett examined Franklin and then confirmed that it was in fact polio. In that day, in that medical world, there was little that could be done for those afflicted with the crippling disease of polio. Unlike those around him, Franklin appeared to take the news in stride and quickly began to look forward rather than back.

Almost from the beginning, Franklin Roosevelt seemed determined that he would not allow the disease to control his life. Soon after receiving news of his diagnosis he was moved to Presbyterian Hospital in New York City for further observation. He strove to keep his spirits up and wrote to a friend that he believed his recovery was possible, but it soon became apparent that this was not the case. His attending physician, Dr. George Draper, described how his physical condition failed to improve, but he also noted that Franklin’s psychological condition was of paramount importance. Franklin had already made up his mind not to wallow in self-pity. As the days passed, Franklin began to regain strength in his upper body. At the same time, his mental attitude remained steadfast. He soon sat up in bed for short periods of time as he dictated letters to his secretary, Missy LeHand, and entertained visitors. During these brief visits, Franklin often chose to shift the attention away from himself, and instead, he attempted to revive the spirits of those around him. To most, Franklin’s physical limitations seemed to settle his future — he would no longer be able to achieve his prior potential. For his part, however, Franklin refused to accept their pity, sympathy or assessment. He applied this same attitude to his family after he returned home from the hospital. By this time, he had made the transition to a wheelchair. Now somewhat independent of others, he refused to accept his mother’s advice to retire to life in the country. Instead, Franklin sought ways of regaining limited mobility so he could seek public office again one day.

The first step in regaining mobility was continuing to gain strength in his arms and upper torso. At his home in Hyde Park, he performed such exercises as raising himself up on parallel bars and swimming in a neighbor’s pool. He also strengthened his arm and shoulder muscles by using the rope pulleys of the trunk elevators in his home to move from one floor to another. These exercises ultimately led to his ability to stand and move forward slightly using his upper body, crutches and fourteen pound steel braces. Able to move under his own power, Franklin set himself the daily task of “walking” down the long driveway of his home. In his reports to Dr. Lovett, he was always optimistic and seemed to take pride in the fact that he could stand on his own legs for an entire hour without exhaustion. As he worked to rebuild his physical strength, he received a number of offers of potential cures for his paralysis, but he soon declared the best solution was “to let nature take its course.”

In early 1923, Franklin Roosevelt left New York in order to find a suitable location to recover from his illness. His journey took him into the South and eventually to the Florida Keys. There he bought a houseboat and began a routine of swimming and visiting with old friends who came down to see him. Franklin enjoyed life on the boat immensely, and many friends noticed a remarkable improvement in his morale. After a brief return to New York, he realized that city life rapidly drained his energy and returned to cruising along the Florida coast. Then, in October 1924, still believing in the possibility of a complete healing, Franklin accepted the invitation of New York banker George Peabody to visit his hotel’s mineral waters at Warm Springs, Georgia. Franklin found that the buoyant waters allowed him to stand, sometimes for as long as two hours without tiring. He believed the waters provided the answer and immediately set about gathering funds to buy the twelve hundred acre estate. He finally succeeded in 1926. Known to many as “Old Doctor Roosevelt,” he began spending large amounts of time at Warm Springs.  

Despite the obvious financial and logistical challenges of managing such a vast estate, Franklin was brimming with confidence. His management and leadership of the estate proved that the purchase was not a mistake. With renewed purpose, he opened up Warm Springs as a place of rehabilitation for those suffering from polio. His self-determination infused others with the same attitude, and Franklin began to lead his guests in pool activities designed to regain lost strength. By 1928, with the help of a physiotherapist named Helena Mahoney, he had mastered the art of “walking” by using a cane in one hand and holding on to the arm of a companion with the other. His renewed physical strength encouraged him to engage in conventional activities like driving. At Warm Springs, he had a car designed with specialized hand controls so he could drive through the countryside making friends with the neighboring farmers and talking to them about crops and other local matters. He was now ready to fully return to his political career.

By the time of the election of 1928, Franklin Roosevelt was ready to take the first step on the road to the White House. As part of his rehabilitation, Franklin had continued to observe and participate in political affairs throughout his illness. With the help of his staff, particularly Missy LeHand, he wrote letters full of advice regarding the Democratic Party’s future, starting as early as 1922 when he wrote a public appeal to Democrat Al Smith urging him to run for governor of New York. As he recovered, Eleanor became Franklin’s chief political ally. She represented Franklin at political gatherings and speaking engagements. In 1924, just before moving to Warm Springs, Franklin began the slow rise back to success by serving as the campaign chairman for Al Smith’s first bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee. As Smith’s designated nominator, Franklin entered the convention using a crutch in his right hand and holding his son’s arm with his left before using a second crutch to make the last few steps to the podium. The crowd broke into thunderous applause as Franklin stood upright with a broad smile on his face. Despite the fact that Smith failed to secure the nomination, Franklin became a symbol of the resilient American spirit that refused to yield under the most demanding circumstances of life.

Four years later, in 1928, Franklin fully reentered the political arena. First, at the Democratic National Convention, he again nominated Al Smith for president, this time using a cane rather than a crutch to reach the podium. That November, he was elected governor of New York. Four years later, his political Everest was reached when he was elected president. Little did he know he would be called on to lead the country through the most trying times since the Civil War, facing down the Great Depression and then the menace of totalitarianism in World War II. Affectionately known as FDR, he served a total of thirteen years, being elected an unprecedented four times. The years, the service and the disease took its toll on him however. Early in his fourth term, on April 12, 1945, in perhaps fitting testimony, Franklin Roosevelt died at the place he had established to aid those similarly afflicted with polio — Warm Springs.

Franklin Roosevelt’s life proved that a person’s circumstances are not what truly define a person, but rather it is how a person reacts to those circumstances. After being informed of his condition, Franklin could have sunk into a deep depression. Many would, but he did not. Instead, he chose to fight the disease with every fiber of his being. Even though he was never able to walk regularly again, his condition actually proved to be a blessing rather than a curse. Daily struggles allowed him to relate to and to express empathy for the struggles other Americans endured. In the toughest of times in the 1930’s and 1940’s, America had a leader to look to who had personally overcome overwhelming circumstances with optimism and hard work. By refusing to give up, Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as an inspiration for the American people to rise above any challenge that faced them.

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