Coping With Polio And A Demanding Stepfather

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Tom Domingue with his wife, Dotty, at a StoryCorps booth in Georgetown, Del.

Tom Domingue with his wife, Dotty, at a StoryCorps booth in Georgetown, Del. hide caption

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Tom Domingue was 8 years old and had just finished second grade when he contracted polio. He caught the virus in 1945, as did tens of thousands of others.

It was a time when polio epidemics broke out in the hot summer months.

He spent months in the hospital; when he was released, Domingue came home with a back brace and two leg braces. He could move his head, but not much.

Recently, Domingue explained to his wife what it was like to return back to his life at home. His mother treated him very kindly — perhaps too much so, in the view of Domingue's step-father, a longshoreman.

Domingue's stepfather encouraged his mother to leave Tom at home with him. And when she did, things changed.

Whereas his mother had been carrying him everywhere, Domingue's stepfather carried him one place: to the center of the living room. There, he stood him up and gave an order: "Walk, or fall."

"I hated him," Domingue said. "I was crying, I wanted my mother. I was so mad at him. And I took a step."

The boy teetered, and began to fall.

"He was right there, and he caught me," Domingue remembers. "He said, 'Oh, that's great, you did great.'"

From then on, the two shared a secret, never telling Domingue's mother about their work to get Tom walking again.

But they kept encouraging his mother to leave.

"I would asked to be plunked" in the middle of the room, Domingue said.

"And eventually, I started gaining more and more strength, and did it because of him," Domingue recalled, "and never looked back."

Produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman. The Senior Producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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