Point Loma author writes an uplifting book about polio
Wayne Raffesberger’s memoir, ‘Thank God I Got Polio,’ looks at the virus that he believes changed him for the better.
The title of Wayne Raffesberger’s memoir is certainly memorable.
That title is “Thank God I Got Polio: A Life of Adventure and the Adventure of Life.” And for the Point Loma resident, the best thing about the book’s name is not that it’s eye-catching, intriguing and possibly a little shocking. The best thing about it is that it’s true.
“It means exactly what it says. It’s not just me trying to be clever,” Raffesberger said.
“Getting polio made me empathetic and sensitive to others in ways that I probably wouldn’t be otherwise. It certainly made me more humble and accepting of things. There is no question that it led me back to faith. I don’t know if I would be any of those things if I hadn’t had it.”
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He is 70 now. His collection of life adventures includes skiing down a glacier, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Matterhorn in the Alps, working with local politicians and civic organizations, teaching at UC San Diego and the University of San Diego, and competing in the annual Sloppy Joe’s Ernest Hemingway Lookalike Contest in Key West, Fla., nine times.
But when his memoir begins, Raffesberger is neither a seasoned daredevil nor a mover-and-shaker, and he is many years from being able to grow a Hemingway-worthy beard. He is a boy living in a small rental house in City Heights, and his legs have suddenly stopped working.
“One morning long ago,” he writes in the book’s first chapter, “I woke up and fell out of bed.”
It was October 1955, and despite the introduction of Jonas Salk’s vaccine earlier that year, many U.S. cities were still struggling with severe polio outbreaks. San Diego was one of them.
And by the end of that October day, 4-year-old Wayne Raffesberger would find out he was one of those cases.
It was the end of the little-boy life he knew and the beginning of a journey in which he had to endure leg braces, multiple surgeries and a lot of ridicule from kids who couldn’t wait to pick on the guy with the limp. That journey also found him traveling the globe, searching his soul and finding many passions.
In May 2020, with the world in the grip of another infectious disease, COVID-19, Raffesberger’s journey took him back to the beginning, to the City Heights bedroom he shared with his older brother, Glenn, and a story he was finally ready to tell.
“I thought I could honestly inspire someone else who might be facing challenges. When I started writing, it just began to flow.”
— Wayne Raffesberger
“Writing is kind of second nature to me. It is really like oxygen,” said Raffesberger, who has written dozens of commentaries, op-eds and travel stories over the years. He also has written pieces for San Diego Magazine, along with some award-winning short stories.
“I thought I might take a crack at a novel, but as I started getting older and thinking about my life and everything that happened and everything I’ve done, I got to the point where I started thinking, ‘I have a story to tell and I think people would want to hear this.’ I thought I could honestly inspire someone else who might be facing challenges. When I started writing, it just began to flow.”
Over its 40 short chapters, “Thank God I Got Polio” follows Raffesberger from his bed at the then-year-old Children’s Hospital of San Diego (now Rady Children’s Hospital) to a boyhood marked by his struggles to walk again and fueled by swimming lessons with Dennis Hopper’s mother, bike riding and academic achievements.
He is elected president of his class at Helix High School. He is rejected by Harvard University but accepted by Stanford. He ditches law school to travel. He throws himself into long-distance bicycle racing, tennis, scuba diving and parachuting. He meets a cat-loving woman named Kaye Hobson, gets married and learns to love cats, too.
In 1987, Raffesberger climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, turning the grueling challenge into a fundraiser for Rady Children’s Hospital. At the end of his climb, he had raised $11,000.
“I say in the book that at no point have I said ‘Why me?’ and felt sorry for myself,” he said. “That has never been part of my thought process, because I was doing so much with what I had. I took the hand that was dealt to me and I charged forward.”
Though he spent more than 18 months writing and rewriting the book, not to mention a good chunk of time narrating the audio version, Raffesberger said he’s still surprised by the life he’s lived and how revisiting its peaks and valleys has made him feel.
And passing along what he’s learned feels like the best thing ever.
“You can get through more than you think,” Raffesberger said. “You can, in fact, get through it. You can end up having one heck of a life.”