“I am who I am because of what I have experienced”
Peter Kavanagh may have learned to walk three times, but he was an engaging, open and thoughtful speaker who took the stage in snazzy blue suede shoes. He referenced the conflict of the Grimsby Author event with both the election and the ball game sharing that if he was not reading, he was not sure that he would be there! He shared his experiences with a sell out crowd and read a couple of excerpts from his new book.
Kavanagh was afflicted by the last big polio epidemic in 1953 before the Salk vaccine was routine. He spent a great deal of time alone in hospitals and learned to walk, the first time, with the aid of a cast followed by surgeries to help lengthen his shorter leg. By the time he was twelve years old, after multiple surgeries, it was discovered that a diagnosis of a congenital dislocated hip had been missed at birth resulting in a hip that was degenerated beyond repair. After surgery to fix his hip to his pelvis and a very lonely year in a body cast Kavanagh had to persistently learn to walk for the second time.
As an adult, he again, had complications related to past surgery. Technology and medicine had improved over the years and the surgeon was able to rebuild his hip with titanium. For the first time in many years, he had two legs the same length but he had to learn to walk a third time! After years of braces, lifts and special shoes he depended on just a cane. His daughter, learning more detail to his history, took him shopping to purchase the blue suede shoes that he has wearing to celebrate his freedom from shoes that made him “different.”
Kavanagh spoke of influences on his life including a love for trees, books and the CBC (where he would go on to work) which he fostered while limited to the back bedroom during his year in the cast. His large, Irish Catholic family had lived in 7 provinces by the time he was 14 years old and he experienced health care across Canada, getting the treatment that the medical team advised his parents was best at the time. The author has now retired, with his wife to nearby Niagara on the Lake and is promoting his memoir, The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.
As a health care professional, I shook my head listening to some of the “experimental” type of surgery and thinking of a young boy sitting in a smelly cast, isolated for an entire year. Listening to Kavanagh’s experience is also cause to reflect on how far the health care system has come. While Kavanagh’s family had to struggle to pay for his treatment, we live in a country where health care is covered so families don’t have to make difficult choices. While he endured traumatic surgery to attempt to even the length of his legs, surgery such as the Ilizarov’s procedure can now successfully lengthen limbs with external fixation. In many ways, Kavanagh’s experience has led to a better outcomes for children that follow and polio vaccines ensure that following generations are protected. I am still finishing The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times but am happy to have a signed copy to keep!