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Pauline's polio battle: Corsica woman is a testament to toughness and strength

Pauline Spaans enjoys a cup of coffee on Tuesday at the Good Samaritan Society in Corsica. (Abbie Lambert/Republic)

CORSICA — The motto for most of Pauline Spaans' life has been, "If there's a will, there's a way."

When she was 28, Spaans contracted polio, which left her confined to a wheelchair. But she did not let that reality get in the way of living life. For more than 60 years, the Corsica woman has remained both healthy and sharp.

Spaans turns 90 on July 24 and hopes to have many more years ahead of her.

She has six children, 19 grandchildren and 27 great grandchildren. She spends most of her time working on a large extensive family tree and visiting with family on her iPad or computer that she taught herself to use. Her faith and presence still remain strong at the Netherlands Reformed Church in Corsica.

The poliovirus epidemic was at its height in the 1950s and affected more than 457,000 people.

By having overcome years of adversity, Spaans is admired by her children who see their mother as one of the strongest figures in their lives.

"She raised all these children in a wheelchair with no help," said Nancy Hill, Spaans' daughter.

"And they turned out to be good kids," Spaans said.

A tough battle

After marrying Cornie Spaans on Valentine's Day in 1950, they settled in Grand Falls, Michigan, near Pauline's family. Fast forward five years, and Spaans was pregnant with the couple's fourth child.

One December morning in 1955, Spaans woke up not feeling ill. Thinking it was the flu she continued through her daily routine which included a trip to the supermarket. While there she noticed her son's shoe was untied.

"I kneeled down to tie it and when it was time to get up, I had to hold on to the counter," Spaans said.

Jim Spaans, age 3 at the time, said he will never forget the day his mother struggled to stand.

The next day Pauline Spaans woke up to the horrible reality that she could not move. She was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital and doctors rushed to diagnose her. What was thought to be the flu turned into an infectious disease: polio. The poliovirus is a potentially deadly virus that can affect a person's brain, spinal cord, and cause paralysis.

The first polio vaccine was developed in 1955, but the shots were mainly given to children 3 years old or younger. After spending almost a month in the hospital, Spaans was moved to a rehab center where she received care and physical therapy for five months.

Spaans' fourth child, a baby girl whom she was pregnant with at the time of her diagnosis, was healthy and alive. But the infectious disease had greatly affected Spaans, killing many different muscles in her arms, shoulders, fingers and ankles, leaving her unable to move normally.

"My right side was affected the most," Spaans said.

With her family nearby, Spaans began the long journey of learning to live with what strength and muscles she had left. Her faith in God helped her through the darkest of days.

In 1958, Spaans' husband and his brother Henry bought a trucking company based in Stickney. The family moved into a two-story house outside of Corsica, approximately 733 miles from Grand Rapids. Many weeks Spaans' husband was on the road from Monday through Saturday making deliveries and driving products from place to place.

Spaans had two more children, one in 1960 and one in 1967. In total Spaans and her husband had three boys, Rich, Jim, and Paul, and three girls, Connie, Arleen and Nancy. Spaans stayed at home with the children and worked as the dispatcher and bookkeeper with her sister-in-law for the trucking business.

Making it work

The family's house was not built to be accessible for disabilities, making it difficult for Spaans to maneuver her way around the house. She often needed help getting things from the cabinets and shaking out rugs.

"We were like normal kids, we didn't always come and help," said Hill.

If nobody was there to help her, Spaans would figure out a way to do it herself.

"You do what you got to do," she said.

One of the famous family stories is how Spaans would conduct family cleaning in the two-story house. Without any help, Spaans would make the trip up to the second floor of the house only a couple times a year.

"She really only got upstairs for spring and fall cleaning," Jim Spaans said.

When Spaans traveled to the second floor, she pulled herself up the stairs one by one since she couldn't stand on her own. She took with her a single bucket of soapy water.

"I don't know how she did it. She only cleaned one bedroom at a time because she only had one bucket of water," Hill said. "Not sure how she made the beds, but our rooms looked awesome afterward."

The children were expected to help with chores around the house, such as washing the dishes, tending the garden or hanging laundry on the clothesline, before they were free to do as they wished.

"There was only one doorway that led to the front door and the upstairs," Jim Spaans said. "She would sit by it until chores were done."

Even today, Pauline Spaans smiles at the story. The task of raising six children is even harder when raising them in a wheelchair. But her children said they never felt their mother was disabled.

"We weren't any different just because our mom was in a wheelchair," Jim Spaans said. "It wasn't unusual, we were normal."

Three years ago, Spaans moved into the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Corsica. She still feels the effects of post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects polio survivors 20 to 30 years after initial exposure, which caused Spaans' muscle to weaken.

Hill and Jim Spaans agreed they learned many things from their mother, including how to be independent. They say it is doing the small things that can really help. Growing up with their mother's influence has ingrained them with habits they'll never lose.

"I'll always open doors for others," Hill said. "Because mom couldn't open doors."

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