Gunnison man sees setbacks, triumphs following childhood illness
Photo by: 
Chris Rourke, Courtesy

Life is not without challenges. And through facing and overcoming challenge, one gains strength. Sometimes that strength is needed unexpectedly down the road, when a difficulty previously conquered once again rears its ugly head.

Such has been the journey for Gunnison’s Chris Haas. The former owner of a bike and ski shop — and hardcore athlete himself — is a survivor of polio. He conquered the disease, only to have its symptoms return decades later and rob his body of the activities he loved so much.

Yet, his new normal has taught him many of life’s lessons — including how to let go of expectations and the past, eliminating the guilt of not being able to grind on a mountain bike like he once did.

He’s now telling his story to others with the hope that they can find gratitude in everyday moments, as well as to raise awareness of the importance of eliminating the life-altering disease.

 

From iron lung, to iron lungs

Haas contracted polio at the young age of 5, just six months before the polio vaccine was released. His only memories of the ailment are being encased in an “iron lung,” barely able to see his parents through a window, and being wrapped in wet, hot towels everyday and soaking in a stainless steel tub of hot water.

While polio has almost been eradicated in the 21st century, the disease which attacks the central nervous system reached epidemic levels in the 1900s. The vast majority of those infected by the virus only manifest flu-like symptoms, yet some suffer paralysis and even death.

Haas recovered from the disease in six months but was left with a deformity in his left leg. His foot turned inward, and he was unable to walk normally because of damage to a tendon. But it didn’t slow him down as a child. He could still run even with his braced shoe.

A decade later, when Haas was 16, he underwent what he called the “miracle surgery.” Doctors removed a healthy tendon from his foot, stretched it and then replaced the damaged one with it. Eighteen months later, Haas was playing football and lacrosse.

“It was like someone left the gate open,” Haas said. “I had a lot of dreams. I wanted to ski. I wanted to play football. I wanted to go to college. Two years after surgery, I was off to college in Boulder and I stopped talking about (polio).”

With his new lease on life, Haas studied business at University of Colorado-Boulder. While he did not finish his degree, he began working in the outdoor recreation industry, learning all he could about skis. Unknown to him at the time, the experience would lead him to starting a successful business called the Tune Up — a Gunnison ski and bike shop — in 1976.

Haas experienced the success of riding the mountain biking boom, turning paper boy bikes into mountain bikes which led to advising top companies on equipment fabrication. He also became a hardcore athlete, biking on 100-mile rides, skating and skiing.

 

Lifelong impact

Polio, which is transmitted through the saliva or fecal matter of an infected person, has plagued mankind for centuries. Yet, it reached epidemic proportions in the United States in the 1940s and ‘50s with as many as 58,000 cases and 3,000 deaths reported annually.

With the introduction of the Jonas Salk vaccination in 1955, new cases fell almost 90 percent within two years. Due to widespread vaccination, polio cases originating in the U.S. were eliminated by 1979.

However, the disease still lingers, largely in countries like Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, and may be making a small comeback.

Rotary International is now a partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, with the aim of making those countries polio-free.

“If all eradication efforts stopped today, within 10 years, polio could paralyze as many as 200,000 children each year,” states the Rotary International website. So far, Rotary has contributed more than $1.8 billion toward eradicating the disease worldwide.

Even with the few cases of polio which now occur annually, the disease’s impact can still be felt today as a survivor develops what is known as postpolio syndrome.

 

‘You need to get it together’

As the years progressed, Haas began to note changes. For example, a good bike ride would leave him exhausted, while his friends would easily recover. He noticed new pain, not only in his leg but in other parts of his body.

At first, he thought it was just the effects of aging and from working so long in a retail store. However, Haas learned in 2004 that he has post-polio syndrome.

The years that followed were grim. He sold his share of the Tune Up and sank into a lifestyle of inactivity. He slowly started giving up the things he was so passionate about — the activities that defined him in so many ways, the things he didn’t think he could live without.

The pain and lack of energy led to days of sitting slumped on the couch, watching hours of television. His nights were endless with limited ability to sleep soundly.

“I think it was a realization that, ‘Hey, man, you need to get it together,’” Haas said of the moment he knew he needed a change.

 

Therapy through ‘hoga’

He started seeing a chiropractor, who gave him three specific exercises and taught him how to stretch his back and how to use rolled-up towels under his back and neck on the floor.

The initial work was painful, but he began sleeping at night.

Then Haas put together a daily routine of meaningful movement. His “dome” — a greenhouse in his yard which resembles a hollow upper half of a glass sphere — became a refuge. He began gardening in raised beds while sitting on a rolling stool. He used the actions of pruning and debugging plants as therapeutic exercise.

For example, he calls watering the plants and laying out hose “hoga,” rather than yoga.

But the former athlete had more to cope with than just moving his muscles — there was his mind to deal with as well. What he learned was to value what he was able to do, rather than focusing on what he could no longer do.

“I used to think, ‘If you’re not going to ride your bike for 25 miles, why bother?’” Haas said, lamenting loss of the high an athlete experiences after a hard workout.

But the three exercises and stretching his back gave him a jump start. He realized he could become fit once again, and resolve some of his pain.

“It is real, it is doing me good,” he continued. “No, it’s not aerobic, but I’m doing something and its meaningful.”

 

A gallon of gas a day

Haas likened his condition to a motor that gets one gallon of gas a day. When the tank runs dry, he’s done. But he uses that “fuel” the best he can and rejoices in the small victories, rather than the big rides.

He’s learned to keep his active brain busy by reading books and playing guitar. In the evening he does his “jazzitation” — or meditation with music and movement.

“It’s allowed me to ditch the guilt and not be ashamed of no longer being athletic,” he said. “I’ve developed some other interests. I’ve always had other interests.”

Perhaps most impactful for Haas was the recent death of a friend who also had polio. He visited her regularly. His friend, he said, never experienced a recovery such as his — both of her legs had been affected by the disease and she spent her life in a wheelchair.

During one of their final conversations, she told him that she was so thankful. Bewildered, he asked her why. Outside her window was a tree in full bloom with a dumpster behind it.

“Because I have a tree,” she said. He could only see the dumpster.

“I had to come home and reevaluate,” he said. “I needed to start finding more joy in what I’m doing. I’ve learned I just need to milk whatever I’ve got and listen to my body constantly and when it’s time to sit down, it’s time to sit down.”

 

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.rourke@gunnisontimes.com )