SAN BENITO — It was May of 1957 and Jay Williams was a happy-go-lucky kid, wrapping up his sophomore year at Center High School in East Texas.
The 15-year-old marathon runner and basketball player was looking forward to another carefree summer in the Piney Woods along the Texas-Louisiana border. But, his summer dreams became a nightmare one morning during the last week of school.
“I woke up and I told my mother I didn’t feel good,” recalled Williams. “It was like I was all stopped up. I couldn’t swallow and I was having trouble breathing and talking.”
Williams’ mother took him to four doctors over the ensuing few days, but they offered little more than puzzlement and penicillin shots. Finally, they were referred to a nerve specialist.
“He was the fifth doctor I saw,” said Williams. “He looked at me and told my mother, ‘I know what’s wrong with this boy. He’s got bulbar polio. Get him to a polio ward.’”
Williams was rushed to Confederate Memorial Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana. Doctors told his mother he probably wouldn’t even survive his first night. They were wrong. Williams did survive, and would spend the following three months in the hospital’s polio ward with 25 to 30 other patients, most of them children and teens like himself.
“There were rooms full of people that had polio,” Williams said. “Some of them couldn’t walk. There was a guy that I met and he was paralyzed from his head all the way down to his toes. He could only move his eyes.”
Williams, who has been director of the Sunny Glen Children’s Home in San Benito for the past 19 years, remembers the wheelchairs, the crutches, the deformed limbs and leg braces on his fellow patients. He remembers nurses placed a board under his feet so his arches would not fall and leave him unable to walk.
He also recalls the iron lung breathing device in which he spent the better part of his days and nights with only his head sticking out. Despite the ordeal, Williams doesn’t recall being frightened.
“I probably didn’t have enough sense to be frightened,” Williams joked. “My mother, she was frightened, because they told her that I wouldn’t live. Just three years earlier, my dad had died from a massive heart attack, so she was frightened.”
Williams was one of millions of people who contracted polio in a world-wide spate of outbreaks that began in the early 1900s and reached late into the 1950s. Tens of thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands more were left paralyzed or disabled.
In Williams’ case, the virus partially paralyzed the left side of his face and he had to go through a year of speech therapy to learn how to use his vocal chords again. Fortunately, he retained all movement in his arms and legs.
Williams eventually returned to play high school basketball. After graduation, he completed basic training and served four years in the U.S. Navy. However, his health would be tested again in his later years, first by prostate cancer, then bladder cancer, then a quadruple bypass, and even a stroke. Remarkably, he survived them all and he’s still running — literally.
“I run 3½ miles every other day,” Williams said with a smile. “My doctor calls me the bionic man. He says I should have been dead a long time ago.”
Williams is now approaching his 76th birthday. But, his fight against polio isn’t over. He’s currently touring the Valley to raise awareness that the virus remains a serious world health problem, because it is still present in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Williams will be one of three polio survivors who will present checks at the annual End Polio Night event to be held March 25 at State Farm Arena. Rotary Club members from Harlingen, Brownsville, McAllen, Edinburg, Edcouch-Elsa and Donna are currently selling sponsorships for the event, which will be held during halftime of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers basketball game.
“The money we raise helps pay for vaccines and it pays for keeping the labs going and so forth,” said Event Director Doyle Clarke. “A lot of people don’t know that when we had the Ebola outbreak, it was the Rotary laboratories globally that were recruited to help with that cause. Rotary is into health and we’re global about that.”
Now 60 years removed from the grim polio ward at Confederate Memorial Hospital, Williams considers it part of his calling to participate in events like End Polio Night — to remind others that the fight is not over.
“Polio is still a disease to be reckoned with,” said Williams. “We want to make sure that everyone gets the help they need to overcome it and to understand that polio could come back. That’s what I want people to come away from this with.
“There are people still out there who need help just like I did.”
Sponsorships for End Polio night are available for $500, which includes 25 tickets to the March 25th Vipers game. They can be purchased from any participating Rotary Club member, or by calling Doyle Clarke at 956-244-0699. The goal is to raise $20,000 for Rotary International’s global polio eradication programs.