Striving to outrace polio: What's it like living with the disease
As polio makes a comeback, Minda Dentler reflects on her life with the disease. Paralyzed as an infant in India, she's gone on to become a champion wheelchair triathlete and an immunization advocate.
A friend of Minda Dentler texted her the news article of the recent case of polio in Rockland County, New York that led to a patient becoming paralyzed.
"I kind of was in shock and disbelief to see it in the United States," she recalls. "We have all these resources and then to hear that somebody didn't get part of the regular childhood vaccines and that person could get polio. It was shocking to me."
Dentler was born in Mumbai, India in 1978 and contracted polio at six months. She missed the wave of universal immunization in the country by several years. The result was that Dentler became paralyzed in her legs. She can still feel everything; she just can't tell her legs to move.
"My mother realized she couldn't take care of me," Dentler says, "so she dropped me off at an orphanage."
At age three and a half, she was adopted by a couple in the U.S. "Well, I couldn't walk, right?," she says. "And my body was sort of stuck in this seated position. So I spent the first few years in America just going through a number of surgeries to basically straighten me out so I could then be fitted for leg braces and crutches."
Dentler learned to handle a wheelchair and to walk by using the crutches, her legs immobile beneath her. "In the early years, it was just me trying to be like my siblings," she says. "I didn't want to take the disabled bus to school. I wanted to be able to take the bus with my sister. And so I had to learn how to go up the stairs."
Once at school, she often felt left out. "I was just really embarrassed and self-conscious about the way I looked," she remembers. "And people would stare at me and kids would make fun of me. And I really found it difficult to make friends." Her family, which included three siblings, was athletic; Dentler often watched from the sidelines, wanting to compete herself. "But I couldn't," she says.
Later, when she was in her late 20s in New York City, a friend introduced her to a running club for athletes with disabilities where she learned how to hand cycle: propel a three-wheeled low-to-the-ground bike using only her upper body. She met a friend in a wheelchair who'd completed a triathlon.
"I remember watching him at the finish line thinking, 'That's what I want to do next year,'" she says. "And so actually I signed up for the race without knowing how to swim or run."
Within seven months, she learned to swim and to compete using a racing wheelchair. When Dentler finished the triathlon, she was motivated to go farther. She soon took up half-Ironman distance triathlons, a distance of nearly 70 miles. And she kept meeting people, mostly able-bodied, with extraordinary athletic ambitions, which led her to attempt her first Ironman in Hawaii. That's a distance of 140.6 miles.
"At the time, no female wheelchair athlete had ever made the time cutoffs to finish that race," Dentler says. She missed the cutoff on her first try.
But a year later, she made it and finished the race in 14 hours, 39 minutes — the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Ironman World Championship. She covered all those miles in water and on land, propelled entirely by her arms and upper body.
In a comment worthy of a gold medal for understatement, she says, "I think it's important to stay physically active."
Since then, she's done three half-ironman triathlons — in Dubai, Morocco and Colombia. And Dentler's also currently in the midst of another marathon — she's a mom. Her daughter Maya is seven years old.
"Even when she was very young, things were different," Dentler says. "Like when she cried, I couldn't pick her up off the floor. She knew that she had to get closer to me."
In kindergarten, some of Maya's classmates teased her about having a mom in a wheelchair. But it didn't last long. By first grade, Dentler volunteered at the school to help kids learn to read, and soon they no longer paid attention to her wheelchair. Maya was so proud of her mom she brought her in for show and tell.
"[Maya] said, 'Who wouldn't want a mom like that?,'" says Dentler. "The kids were very curious. They asked me a ton of questions and it was actually pretty fun to answer them. And the kids' eyes would get really big when they heard that I could do all of these things."
Dentler says one memory of her daughter stands out with particular clarity. "I remember vividly when she was three months old getting her first polio vaccine," she recalls. "I just remember crying cause I realized, 'Wow, she is not going to face the debilitating effects of having polio like I have just because she got access to a vaccine and I chose to get her immunized.'"
Dentler has traveled to India with Rotary International to accompany a national immunization drive. "It was really eye opening to me," she says, "because women literally would travel for miles to get their children vaccinated for polio because they knew how much it would impact their lives if their child were to contract polio. Because we don't really see polio really impacting people in the United States, I almost feel like people forget the value of these vaccines."
When Dentler considers the current polio outbreak in New York State, she says it's completely preventable. For her, it boils down to a single word — immunization.
"I wish all people who may be on the fence about vaccination could really meet me," she says. "I'm a reminder to families that they should vaccinate their children."
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