“Helping people help themselves to a better life.” This is the life mission statement of Marc Changnon, Polio survivor. I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Changnon, currently the District Coordinator of Career Programs and Community Relationships for the Unit 4 School District in Champaign, Illinois, and it was the most inspiring conversation of my life. Marc isn’t your average business man working for the school district. Marc was diagnosed with Polio at the young age of just 19 months, yet through all that he has endured, he has become the most positive and empowering man by overcoming Polio and not letting it overcome or define him.
As a young child, growing up in Central Illinois, Marc and his family took a family vacation to Virginia Beach in early August 1954. At the beach, Marc played with another child in the water, doing whatever it is small children do when they play in the sand. Marc and his family returned to their home two days later and he developed a fever, pain and intense crying which prompted Marc’s mother to make an early morning phone call to the doctor, which led to an urgent visit to the hospital. Dr. Kelso delivered the grim news: their son had contracted the Polio Virus, most likely from the water at the beach. It was a grim diagnosis because between the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Polio crippled around 35,000 people each year in the United States, making it one of the most feared diseases in the 20th century.
Marc was hospitalized for six weeks and released. During those six weeks, he lost the use of his legs. After a year of rehabilitation, which included sessions in the Hubbard Tub the doctor declared him fine with the instructions: “If you don’t use it, you will lose it.” And so it began. Marc became like Pete Rose or Forrest Gump. Whatever he did, he gave it his all, he pushed himself to the limits, he had the fear of “use it or lose it” ingrained in his little head and he was NOT going to lose it if he had anything to do with it.
Throughout his life, there were a few defining moments, one being a night in 5th grade, lying on the floor watching T.V. Marc noticed his left foot was slightly shorter than his right foot. By the time he had graduated from high school, there was a severe size difference between his two feet. But that didn’t stop Marc. Still with that “use it or lose it” mindset, he simply bought shoes to fit the larger foot and told his smaller foot to deal with it.
Growing up with Polio was really a non-issue in his house. There was no favoritism or pity. Marc was the oldest of three boys and was expected to help care for the younger brothers and he was expected to carry his weight with chores around the house, both inside and outside. At school, Marc didn’t want the label “cripple” or “gimp.” He played basketball through his sophomore year until he just couldn’t keep up with other athletes. The life lessons he learned as a basketball player are lessons he still carries with him today. Though he couldn’t play the game, he coached the game of basketball for over 30 years.
During the summer of 1988, at the age of 39, Marc was playing golf, walking of course and carrying his golf bag. Marc would never ride in a cart. On hole number 14, something was wrong. His left leg just would not go. He couldn’t make it work. A week later, he shared his story with a friend who heard of a study that the University of Chicago, Department of Neurology was conducting with individuals who were Polio survivors.
It turned out that his experience on the golf course was a sign that Marc was now suffering from Post-Polio Syndrome. This was a little surprising to Marc as Polio was the furthest thing on his mind. Polio was something he had as a child, not now. And then to find out, while his childhood physician, Dr. Kelso, did the best he could at the time when Marc was a youth, pushing him to his limits, teaching him “to use it or lose it” may have caused him more harm than gain.
The medical community had no way of knowing what test research, Dr. Perry, confirmed; the people who worked the hardest to overcome the disability have, in many cases, been hit the hardest by its second wave attack, as over used muscles and nerves gave out after decades of strain. Over the past 25 years, Marc has experienced slow atrophy of muscles/fatigue and yet still does not slow down.
Even today, there is no blame towards Dr. Kelso. Talking with Marc, I choose to believe his fearless attitude and “use it or lose it” attitude is what made him the fierce man he is today. To this day, Marc carries that fearless attitude with him wherever he goes, always striving to do his best. “ADYB” – Always Do Your Best – is Marc’s motto.
An argument could be made as to whether it was the Polio or his junior English teacher, Mrs. Bekemeyer who made the biggest impact on him. In February 1969, Mrs. Bekemeyer asked Marc’s English class to write a paper in the class, “What is your purpose in life.” Marc thought and thought and thought about this statement and with time running out, in the most sincere and simplest form he wrote, “To help people help themselves to a better life.” This simple statement became his purpose, the core of everything he has done for the last 47 years – every club he joins, every talk he gives, and every volunteer opportunity he takes is based on this statement.
Every career Marc has had over his life fits his purpose, from serving as a 4-H Youth Adviser; to helping people plan for their future as a financial planner; to coaching boys’ basketball; to coordinating career programs for students grade 6 through 12. Every career Marc has held has been driven by his desire to help and not by the desire to make a paycheck. As Marc is now retiring from the public school system, he now wants to continue his career as a motivational speaker/personality trainer to continue fulfilling his purpose of “helping others help themselves to a better life.”