Transcription of Ann Lee Hussey for the show Investigating Addiction & Preventing Polio #285

Dr. Lisa Belisle: Today I have with me Ann Lee Hussey, a polio survivor who has made the eradication of polio and the alleviation of suffering by polio survivors her life’s work. Over the past several years she has participated in 28 volunteer national immunization day trips overseas. She was recently honored as a White House Champion of Change for her humanitarianism and contributions to public service. Thanks so much for coming in today.
Ann Lee Hussey: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You and I met at the York Hospital benefit, I believe, in the fall.
Ann Lee Hussey: Correct.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’re from the South Berwick area.
Ann Lee Hussey: Correct.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You were born, I believe, at York Hospital.
Ann Lee Hussey: I was, yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve been all over the world. You’ve had kind of an exciting life for someone that’s honestly a Mainer.
Ann Lee Hussey: For a little girl from Maine, yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Exactly.
Ann Lee Hussey: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Did you think that when you developed this disease that it would send you down a road like this?
Ann Lee Hussey: Never. If you’d asked me that 20 years ago I would have just looked at you funny. Actually growing up, my polio, I never thought a whole lot about, and I just tried to be part of what was going on around me with my peers. It was my exposure to Rotary and when I learned about what they were doing with a program to eradicate polio, that I thought to my self, why am I not involved in this?
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about the polio itself. It’s something that in the United States most of us don’t really think about that much because we’re not faced with the actual disease. How old were you when you developed polio?
Ann Lee Hussey: I was 17 months. I contracted polio three months after the very first polio vaccine by Dr. Salk was released.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Obviously you wouldn’t have much of a memory of that.
Ann Lee Hussey: I don’t. I don’t remember that experience. Only stories that have been told to me by my mom and my siblings and my cousins.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What types of stories have you been told about that? I would imagine for a mother or parents or grandparents, it must have been pretty scary for them to have essentially a toddler come down with this horrible disease?
Ann Lee Hussey: Yeah. I can’t imagine how my mother would have reacted to that. I was the youngest of five and the only one that was affected. I know that she knew what it was immediately, not only because they’d lived through that polio era, but because her brother had contracted polio when he was five, her younger brother. She’d already seen that happen, so I think she was very scared. I was initially paralyzed from the waist down. It was a while before she ever told me that. I can’t imagine how a mother must feel when the only thing her little girl is moving is her head and arms, and please keep in mind there were others who were far more affected than I. I feel very lucky in the respect that I’m doing as well as I am today.
Other stories that were told to me were, my older sister told me about how my mom used to get up every three hours round the clock to massage my legs and move them to enable me to walk. I owe her a lot. I owe my mom a tremendous amount. Other stories were, my cousins, that just came out a couple years ago, how they used to take me down to the local pond which is down the road and she would take my braces off and put me in the water. Little did she know how therapeutic that was.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: They were almost inadvertently doing things that now we actually offer as something, a legitimate means of healing.
Ann Lee Hussey: Exactly. Yeah. My mother was told by the doctor to do all she could. I still went for rehabilitation centers as a toddler, but there were many things my mom had to do at home for me to get me to do that. One of those experiences that I really remember is my mom used to fill her purse with sand, and I would sit at the kitchen table and she would hang it off my foot and make me do leg lifts. Whatever it takes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s a creative approach.
Ann Lee Hussey: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That takes quite a woman to say, I don’t mind having my purse filled with sand.
Ann Lee Hussey: My mom was a good woman.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Youngest of five, too.
Ann Lee Hussey: I was. Youngest of five.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: It’s not enough that she’s already got five children to take care of, and then on top of that she gets to work with her youngest.
Ann Lee Hussey: Right. Right. Overall my siblings, I’m sure there was some jealousy, misunderstanding at that age why I was receiving all that attention, but overall they were very accommodating. It was a time, growing up in a small town, when neighbors reached out. They would bring meals over to my mom. That helped tremendously.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Does it ever occur to you that it was maybe not the best luck that this vaccine was coming out, and you just happened to contract this prior to that happening?
Ann Lee Hussey: I don’t ever think about the fact that it may have had bad luck. I don’t think that at all. In fact I don’t blame anybody. It’s a virus, and it happened. I was young enough to not know any different. I grew up with the challenges that I had and learned how to face those and learned how to overcome and deal with it. Again I have to tell you that, especially now, after traveling around the world, I see so many other people that are so far more affected, that I’m truly blessed. I didn’t spend time in an iron lung, which would have been extremely scary. I’m not in a wheelchair now. I don’t know what will come down the road for me. I don’t blame anybody. It’s not woe is me, never ever been woe is me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’m not sure that everything who’s listening has enough experience with polio to know what actually happens when one contracts this diseases. You’ve already mentioned a couple of things. Paralysis and the need to be in an iron lung. That’s because not only do your muscles of your legs, your limbs become paralyzed, but you can also not be able to breathe because there’s a muscle called the diaphragm that needs to be able to move in order for you to be able to bring air in and out of your lungs.
Ann Lee Hussey: Exactly.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: This is scary stuff that was going on. People, what I’m remembering hearing is that they would close down pools and swimming holes and people would quarantine their children in the middle of the summer. There was a fear around this.
Ann Lee Hussey: A huge fear. A huge fear. Especially in the city, because it seemed, though it affected the country, too, but at the time that I contracted polio, it was one of the last large epidemics in the Boston area. So many parents in the cities would pack up their children and move out to the country thinking they were going to escape the virus. They may have, but it actually may have brought it to me. There’s no proof of tha, but there’s that possibility. I have friends who would tell me how they were never able to see any of their friends during their summer. At the end of school, they never saw them again until school started up again in the fall.
They may not have seen all of them. Some of them may have passed away from polio during the summer.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’m wondering how it makes you feel, as someone who has survived this virus that is vaccine preventable, to hear that some people may have misgivings about vaccines?
Ann Lee Hussey: It bothers me tremendously. To the point of I get a little bit angry, because I don’t think that it’s fair that a parent make that judgment for a child, when there are so many facts out there telling us that the vaccine is safe and that the consequences of not taking the vaccine are huge. As you said, it’s a totally preventable disease. If you get polio, you always have polio. The effects are lifelong. Why would a parent take that risk, is my question. Why would they do that? There’s so much documentation out there that tells us that vaccines are good.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: At least with polio, more people are convinced this is one that if they’re going to choose amongst vaccines, that this is one that they are willing to have their children get.
Ann Lee Hussey: Yes. That’s true. If they were to travel with me though, overseas, they might think differently about refusing the measles or the whooping cough, or others, because there’s still large epidemics of that happening out there.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that.
Ann Lee Hussey: When I go out to immunize in the polio campaigns, we visit villages, and we’re reaching all these children up to the age of five. Many times they will say there’s a measles outbreak in this village. I think back to myself, I don’t see that so much in the US. We have in recent years. Those mothers will walk miles to come for a measles vaccination for their child. Miles. Not only for the polio, but they will walk miles for the measles and all the other ones that the health workers offer.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What countries have you visited?
Ann Lee Hussey: I’ve been to India many ties, different parts of India. I’ve visited Nigeria multiple times. In addition to that I’ve been to Bangladesh, and Egypt, Niger, Mali, Benin, and Chad and Madagascar.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What do you see when it comes to outbreaks of these diseases? How is the community able to actually respond?
Ann Lee Hussey: Fortunately we’ve been doing the polio program now for 31 years, and along with the eradication of polio we’ve also brought a greater awareness to how vaccines can help these individuals, and a greater awareness to mothers for reasons to come to health clinics. That’s what we see now. We see parents willing to go to medical doctors and nurses within their own countries to receive help to their kids. That’s a huge improvement over 30 years.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What was it like before?
Ann Lee Hussey: There were tribal doctors. There were not medically fact based doctors, or there just wasn’t any access to health care at all. In some of the really remote regions that we go to, we’ve actually brought health care to them for the first time ever. Children would die. I was in Mali once, and this really went home to me. They don’t even name their children until the child’s at least a year old, because they just want to make sure that the child’s going to live.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I guess that’s one of the things that I’m wondering, is that if you live in a country that’s probably challenged by things like sanitation, access to good nutrition, access to medical care, then if you have an outbreak, then it’s not as if you had an outbreak in a place like Portland where you have access to the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital and the Maine Center for Disease Control. You’re talking about, you’re already starting from a very different place.
Ann Lee Hussey: Exactly. Exactly. That’s one of the reasons why the eradication of polio has taken so long because we are working with children who are malnourished and underserved in many ways and uneducated and all that. When we go to give a vaccine to a child who’s malnourished, their immune system doesn’t necessarily respond as quickly as a child here in Portland, because they’re not as healthy. Chronic diarrhea is one of the biggest killers of children overseas. The same reason because of the poor sanitation and water that’s not clean.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Why has this been important to Rotary?
Ann Lee Hussey: Well, it’s very important to Rotary. We “tested” it in 1979, I say tested in quotes. When an individual, a Rotarian from the Philippines, asked if they could do a grant, funds, that would immunize the children in the Philippines, because at the time that he was asking, the Philippines was reporting the largest number of polio cases in that Asia region. We did that, and the success was immediate. We decreased the rate immensely and it wasn’t long after that the Philippines was polio free. When you see that kind of proof, number one, we’re willing to try. Number two, the polio is only in humans. There’s no animal reservoir or anything, or it would be impossible to do.
More importantly, what the unique thing about Rotary is that we are an army of volunteers, all around the globe. 1.2 million and growing strong. It’s that army of volunteers who can do advocacy, who can do hands on, who can get out into the streets and talk to the people in their own communities and help them understand the importance of what they’re doing. I think that is what made Rotary such a strong partner when we finally did reach out to the world health agencies around the world, they knew that that’s what Rotary brought, that army of volunteers, the ability to fundraise and the ability to advocate. That’s what we do best.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: In addition to doing this work you also work with your husband who’s a veterinarian and you’re a veterinary technician and you’ve been working together, you’ve been married 34 years, you’ve had a practice for how many years now?
Ann Lee Hussey: Since ’84, so do the math.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’re pretty busy. You have this whole other life.
Ann Lee Hussey: I do have this whole other life. I have to admit that I don’t work at the clinic anymore though. Rotary became my life, and my husband who’s also a Rotarian realized how important this was to me and said that it’s okay, go do it. Go see where this takes you. As the first couple years went by and I became more and more involved, I worked less and less. Now I don’t. I know all the girls and I go down and I visit and I do all of that, but I don’t have to be at the office because we have such excellent help to do it for me. Rotary has become my life. Polio eradication, in many ways, has become my life. I have a passion to see the end of this for many reasons, mostly because of the children of the world. No child should have to suffer. No child, again, from a totally preventable disease.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What was the turning point for you, what point did you go from someone who had had polio to someone who wanted to eradicate polio?
Ann Lee Hussey: Remember my uncle was a polio survivor. He was a mentor for me, because I grew up watching how he dealt with things, physically, and emotionally. Then I learned about Rotary’s program, and I had the opportunity to take my very first trip in January of 2001, and I traveled to India. I stepped way outside my comfort zone, leaving little Maine and stepping out. It was fun. It was amazing, actually, to see the program, to see the logistics, to see what a tremendous amount of work they were doing in India. The thing that caught me was when I visited a rehabilitation center.
I’ve told this story many times. My apologies to viewers who may have heard this, but they paraded out in front of us, a group of school children, they want to show off who they were helping, and that’s fine. They all had assistive devices, various sorts. There was one little girl that it will never forget. When she walked past me, limping past me, she smiled at me. I of course returned her smile. She was a beautiful little girl.
I looked down at her legs showing beneath her skirt and there was that same thin right leg, that same heavy metal brace and I was really overcome with memories of myself at her age and I broke down. I basically broke down. I cried. I cried so hard. I say that I cried for her, but I cried for me. I cried for all the waste that polio was bringing for so many. Especially being there in India and seeing them on the streets, I thought, I have to do more. I could hear my uncle’s voice in my ears saying if you can just prevent one child, you’ll have done your job. I’ve prevented more than one child after all these years, but my job’s not finished. I think it’s that little girl, it’s her smile, it’s her perseverance, and it’s my uncle’s voice that keeps me going.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You still deal with the after effects of polio.
Ann Lee Hussey: I do.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: As an adult.
Ann Lee Hussey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Because once you get polio, if you’re lucky enough to survive, it’s always with you.
Ann Lee Hussey: Always with you. Every day of my life, it’s there. Polio has a condition known as post-polio syndrome that can affect survivors, anywhere from 30 to 40 years after they have that acute paralysis. You never know when that’s going to hit. What that post polio syndrome is extreme fatigue, you can have extreme pain in both muscles and joints. Then your weakness starts to take over. Some people actually end up back in wheelchairs or in leg braces, riding scooters. Here’s a disease that they had overcome, that they had triumphed, that they had persevered, and now it was coming back to haunt them. Not the disease, but the effects. I wake up every morning and put my feet on the floor and say I’ve still got it. I may be a little weaker than yesterday, I may have to hold onto the railings, I may walk slower than all my friends, but I’m still here. That’s how I look at life. I’m still here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve obviously given so much time of yourself that you’ve been recognized as a White House Champion of Change. You don’t think of yourself in any way as being close to finished with this?
Ann Lee Hussey: No. We’re close. We are very close. Until we’ve reached that last child, until we come to zero cases, and then we pass three to four years without any more, then we’ll be finished.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What is the current state of polio eradication?
Ann Lee Hussey: We are at a very good spot right now. We are actually poised to have the last case be finished this year in 2017. We never want to say for sure, because that polio virus is a persistent little devil and hides out in areas that we’re constantly watching. We have the lowest number of cases being reported. Stop and think when we started there were 1,000 cases being reported every single day. Over 350,000 a year, globally. Last year, for 2016, there were only 37 cases globally. We’ve driven that virus and reduced the area that it’s found now to just geographical regions within Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, into small regions.
We have the tools, we know how to eradicate polio. The challenges that remain are areas of conflict. Areas of inaccessibility, rugged terrain as well as the conflict. We still need $1.8 billion through 2019 to finish this job. We have very generous donors. We think that that will happen, but we always need more donors. If anyone listening wants to help the children of the world and be a part of a very historic movement, go to Really, we are poised, and Rotary doesn’t do this alone. Rotary works with our partners, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and UNICEF.
In recent times, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We are determined. All their partners offer their own expertise to get us through this, and many thanks for Bill Gates and his contributions. They have been very generous. I think we’re so close. We’re so close. We used to put our fingers up and put this little space between them, but that space is getting smaller all the time.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Ann Lee, anything else that you think people are listening ought to know about polio and the work that you’re doing?
Ann Lee Hussey: Just again let me just say, if you’re willing to contribute, go to If you’re willing to learn more about Rotary, go to A nice website is the website. It’ll tell you the history of where we’ve come from, what’s happening, real time today in these countries that are still endemic. I have to add that in addition to the partners that I already mentioned, the governments of the world are a huge part of this. We couldn’t finish this job. We couldn’t have achieved what we have today without the government’s support. That includes the governments of the endemic regions as well as countries like our own and Canada and European, that are giving funds to finish this job. I want the people to know that this is the largest public-private health initiative ever created. It’s changing the world, and we’re making history. If you want to be a part of it, come join us.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: If I wasn’t convinced before, I am now. I appreciate your coming in and speaking with me, and I really appreciate all the work that you’re doing to spread the right information about immunizations and about eradicating polio. I’ve been speaking with Ann Lee Hussey, a polio survivor, who has made the eradication of polio and the alleviation of suffering by polio survivors her life’s work. Keep up the good work, Ann Lee.
Ann Lee Hussey: Thank you. Thanks for having me.