Volunteer Corner: Polio survivor strives for 'normal'

“I was always trying to pass for normal.”

That was sometimes as painful as the disease, Micki Minner had to admit, but she struggled with that urgency most of her life.

Like millions of polio survivors, she boarded her terrifying ride as a youngster. Paralyzed on her right side as a toddler growing up on an Air Force base in Guam in 1959, she endured three spinal taps. She was kept in isolation for nine months, forced to watch other kids play outside her window.

“To this day, I find it hard to be in a room without a radio or TV,” she says.

Eventually able to walk with a limp, she soon discovered the polio wasn’t going to be the only source of pain in her life. Her father was dishonorably discharged soon after and left her mother with four kids when she was 9, she said, returning only to kidnap her younger sister right in front of her.

“I didn’t see her again till she was 25, and I had no contact with my dad till he was dying.”

Unfortunately, she does recall him forcing her to wear a special wooden leg brace he had made “with nails sticking out so they would draw blood if I limped. I learned quickly that I had to hide my disability.”

After witnessing the murder of a neighbor and struggles with her mom’s mental health issues, she lived with relatives until she moved back with her mother and new stepfather in Tallahassee. She did so well in school she was accepted at Florida State University when she was only 16. She even made the swim team, able to excel in the backstroke. It didn’t require as much leg strength.

“I seemed to thrive under pressure,” she proudly remembers.

She worked long hours as a DJ to pay college expenses, and still managed to graduate with honors, although she fought through psychotherapy as a student, finally discovering her nightmares were flashbacks to the spinal taps she suffered as a little girl.

Micki escaped domestic violence as a young wife, fleeing to New York where she worked her way up in a company installing computers at media outlets all over the world. Exhausted from the international travel demands, she began to feel the effects of the polio, and fell into a cycle of uppers and alcohol to maintain her rigorous work schedule.

“I guess I just thought it was normal working that hard,” she says.

One day Micki realized 50 weeks a year in airports and hotels was killing her, so she literally hung a U. S. map on the wall and threw a dart at it.

“I didn’t care where it landed.”

It stuck on Georgia, and she became an avid hiker there, logging nearly 1,800 miles, mostly on the Appalachian Trail. Working at an Atlanta radio station and suddenly battling ovarian cancer, she began to suffer symptoms on the right side of her body again. Diagnosed with PPS (post-polio syndrome), she was dealing with constant weakness, twitching and pain.

Once again, she fought and persevered. Building her own computer, by age 42 she was creating networks of polio survivor groups around the world.

“I learned from others who had the same problems,” she says.

One of those was a glider pilot named Charlie. They arranged to meet in Atlanta and “it was love at first sight,” she said. They married and moved to Tucson. Wheelchair-bound by then, Charlie was still determined to stand for the ceremony, able to struggle up on crutches. A former U of A gymnast and flight instructor, he trained Micki to fly a glider, but her pain worsened to the point that sometimes she couldn’t get from the car to the house.

“He would sit with me in the garage till I could get inside,” she says.

They were together till he died about eight years ago.

“It was incredible,” she said, beaming. “He was the love of my life. We understood each other.”

Micki Minner is not unlike many — some celebrities and famous athletes — who have battled polio in the shadows, but didn’t let it defeat them. She was a successful business woman, DJ, college swimmer, golfer, glider pilot, foster parent, hiker, Girl Scout leader, and traveled every continent but Australia — an extraordinary “normal” life.

“Yes, I was always trying to pass for normal, but I wouldn’t have passed on anything that I did in my life. I’ve always thought of myself as a willow that bends.

“It’s not overcoming, it’s adapting.”

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