Seven Wheelchairs: A Life Beyond Polio

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In 1959, seventeen-year-old Gary Presley was standing in line, wearing his favorite cowboy boots and waiting for his final inoculation of Salk vaccine. Seven days later, a bad headache caused him to skip basketball practice, tell his dad that he was too ill to feed the calves, and walk from barn to bed with shaky, dizzying steps. He never walked again. By the next day, burning with the fever of polio, he was fastened into the claustrophobic cocoon of the iron lung that would be his home for the next three months. Set among the hardscrabble world of the Missouri Ozarks, sizzling with sarcasm and acerbic wit, his memoir tells the story of his journey from the iron lung to life in a wheelchair.

Presley is no wheelchair hero, no inspiring figure preaching patience and gratitude. An army brat turned farm kid, newly arrived in a conservative rural community, he was immobilized before he could take the next step toward adulthood. Prevented, literally, from taking that next step, he became cranky and crabby, anxious and alienated, a rolling responsibility crippled not just by polio but by anger and depression, “a crip all over, starting with the brain.” Slowly, however, despite the limitations of navigating in a world before the Americans with Disabilities Act, he builds an independent life.

Now, almost fifty years later, having worn out wheelchair after wheelchair, survived post-polio syndrome, and married the woman of his dreams, Gary has redefined himself as Gimp, more ready to act out than to speak up, ironic, perceptive, still cranky and intolerant but more accepting, more able to find joy in his family and his newfound religion. Despite the fact that he detests pity, can spot condescension from miles away, and refuses to play the role of noble victim, he writes in a way that elicits sympathy and understanding and laughter. By giving his readers the unromantic truth about life in a wheelchair, he escapes stereotypes about people with disabilities and moves toward a place where every individual is irreplaceable.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Seven Wheelchairs is a compelling account of one man’s struggle to learn to live well with a significant disability. Presley’s memoir powerfully recounts the physical and psychological challenges he faced during his long recovery from polio. It is also a moving story of how the love and care of his parents and later his wife helped him enjoy life seated in his wheelchairs.”—Dan Wilson, author, Living with Polio: The Epidemic and Its Survivors
Kirkus Reviews
The painful story of what it's like to become crippled as an adolescent and forever dependent on others. Now in his 60s, Presley got a booster shot of the Salk attenuated polio virus vaccine in 1959 at age 17. Designed to enhance immunity, the virus instead produced major paralysis, which required the boy's removal to an iron lung and then to a series of rocking beds and mechanical devices to force air into his lungs. Over time he gained a little upper-body strength and was able to get around in a wheelchair and breathe on his own-but with respirators handy for when his weakened lungs tired. Now some 50 years and seven wheelchairs later, Presley recounts his evolution from the deep anger, self-pity, frustration, passivity and hostility of those first decades of bitterness and depression to his emergence as an adult. It didn't help that he spent those early years as a "crip" on a Missouri farm with a stoical, stiff-upper-lip dad (his mom was loving and devoted). Nor did it help that about the time both parents were dying, he fell ill with post-polio syndrome. That he recovered, could work, fall in love, marry and convert to Roman Catholicism are part of the trajectory toward a happy ending. But not quite. He is concerned about his stepsons; he continues to feel sad or depressed or angry. But he has become a fighter, raging against the pity and stigma experienced by people with disabilities, as though they are less than human-attitudes he sees exemplified by Jerry Lewis. Presley's writing is deeply emotional, sometimes excessive and a bit too self-flagellating. Judicial editing and curbing of the occasional metaphor would help. However, for readers who remember the era of infantileparalysis and newsreels of children in iron lungs, Presley's descriptions of exactly how they work, as well as the daily care that paralysis demands, are a revelation. One of the more honest and informative disease memoirs.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587296932
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 238
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Presley was born in 1942 in Long Beach, California; he now lives and writes in Springfield, Missouri. Between 1965 and 2000 he worked in insurance sales and commercial radio. His essays have been published in the Springfield News-Leader, Ozark Mountaineer, Missouri Review,, Notre Dame Magazine, and New Mobility.

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