68: You Go Girl!

68: You Go Girl!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness

You Go Girl!

It’s not that successful people are givers; it is that givers are successful people.

~Patti Thor

I believed that I was well on my way to fulfilling all I had been placed on this Earth to accomplish, or so I thought until 2003. I was a wife and mother as well as a woman who had used her professional training as a medical rehabilitation counselor in both remunerable and volunteer activities. I had chosen my field as a teen, influenced by my desire to work with patients and families who had suffered serious illness or injury. I was a happy woman, content with my personal and very private life path.

My life had been directed since I was a little girl. In 1953, at the age of six, my twin brother Frankie and I had contracted polio in an epidemic that had devastated our suburb of DeWitt, New York. Frankie had died sixty-one hours after admission to City Hospital; two of our friends had eventually succumbed to complications. I was temporarily paralyzed but had eventually made a complete recovery.

My parents had always told me, “Janice, God wanted you to live for a reason.” I was comfortable with that philosophical and religious concept and thus chose a medical-allied field as a profession. You see, I knew what it was like to suffer the loss of a loved one. I knew what it was like to suffer physical pain. Learning to walk again was tough. Learning to accept Frankie’s death was tougher still.

I like to call it my “wake-up call,” the short note and magazine that changed everything for me. A college friend and grad school roommate sent me a note in March of 2003. The note was simple: “Jan, now you have to tell your story.” The magazine she had sent was The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. For years, I had read nothing of polio. Like most people in the Western world, I thought we were done with polio — how wrong I was!

That night, I sat down with my husband Dave (an orthopedic surgeon who had trained under one of my polio docs) and told him that I had to do something. We settled on a book project. What else could a private person like me do?

For the next four years, I was glued to my laptop as I researched and wrote about the disease that I had hated for so long. I had always believed that Dave was the lucky one, marrying a girl who could never be jealous of his profession and its demands because she knew what it was like to be on the patient end of things. But, now I was looking at our life from a different vantage point. Perhaps there really are no coincidences in life… I could have never written my book without the constant support of my husband and our son Kevin. More importantly, I needed Dave to make sense of the mound of medical information that I needed to include in the book.

There were other things that seemed beyond chance as well: Without my friend’s note, I might have remained unaware of polio’s continued presence or of the enormous contributions of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Moreover, I had family and friends who supported me in this project, adding insight into the various ways that polio had changed all of our lives. Their recollections reinforced the rehabilitation philosophy that I had embraced since my time at Seton Hill and the University of Pittsburgh: illness affects many beyond the nuclear family. Similarly, my new endeavor came at a critical time for the public health community and at an opportune time in my personal life. 2003 found me well adjusted to my “empty nest” status, but without a new passion to sink my teeth into.

My book was published in 2007 with a second edition released in 2008 — I was on a roll! Many people told me that I should expect a call from a famous TV person. That sounded perfectly plausible: I was confident that anyone who read my book would fall in love with Frankie, and thus appreciate the importance of preventing other children, just like Frankie, from contracting polio. Frankie would be famous and his story would be told around the world. I must admit I’ve always had a vivid imagination, a personality trait that helped to sustain me during fifteen-hour writing and editing blocks while providing a never-ending series of apologies for forgetting to make dinner. I had also found the perfect excuse to do some serious shopping. After all, I had to be ready for my “TV gigs.”

Well, needless to say, I’m still waiting for that phone call, but something much better has happened. After speaking to an immunization coalition in the Erie-Niagara County region of New York State, I began to be asked to speak to other groups far beyond my home turf. I had no idea how powerful word-of-mouth recommendations could be. Today, my life is full with speaking engagements to a diverse group of individuals and organizations in both the United States and Canada.

As I reflect upon the last few years, I’m struck by the realization that our life’s mission has many twists and turns. We have to be ever ready to listen to the cues, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious, and to be willing to “connect the dots” so to speak. Happiness doesn’t mean that we escape sadness and disappointment. It means that we take what life has given us and turn the ups and downs into something bigger than ourselves.

In 2011, I feel that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, speaking out about a disease that I know all too well. I look forward to the day that I’m no longer asked to speak in public because we will have successfully eradicated polio… I look forward to a new path along this life journey of mine. Where will it lead me? Happiness is all about staying vigilant to the possibilities!

In the meantime, I like to think that Frankie is cheering his birth partner on with a resounding, “You go girl!”

~Janice Flood Nichols

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