THE DAY THE PLANE TOUCHED DOWN
We heard the plane in the distance before we saw it, easing its way along the tarmac at New York’s LaGuardia airport toward us.
Standing inside at the terminal window, members of my family watched as two of the flight crew disembarked. The next one off the Air Force plane was my sister, Margie, carrying her infant son, and holding the hand of her six-year-old daughter, Becky.
We all let out a collective gasp as the stretchers appeared at the door; first, four-year-old Debbie, strapped securely but looking unsure. Then her father, Bob, was lifted out, lying uncomfortably and rigidly on the second stretcher.
Flashes from photographers’ cameras made Debbie turn her head in surprise and sudden fear.
We quickly made our way to a nearby private room that had been made available to our family to greet the arrivals.
The sympathetic article in the New York Times the next morning was accompanied by a grainy photo taken on the tarmac with this headline: “MISSIONARY AND CHILD, STRICKEN WITH POLIO, ARRIVE AT LAGUARDIA AIRPORT.
In heartbreaking detail it reported that my sister’s husband and their daughter, Debbie, were stricken with polio only two weeks after their home in the Philippines had been completely destroyed by a massive mud slide and only one month before the Salk vaccine was discovered by Jonas Salk in 1954 and made available to Americans both home and abroad.
The American Embassy in the Philippines, learning of Bob and Debbie’s paralysis, requested permission for them to fly home in an Air Force plane. The “Sister Kenney treatment” of wrapping affected limbs with hot, moist compresses to reduce muscle spasms and the resultant pain was proving unsuccessful and emergency treatment in the States was desperately needed to save their lives.
Their story was picked up by the Associated Press and printed in newspapers across the country.
Bob and Debbie were immediately admitted to a New York rehabilitation hospital where for many months, they followed a rigorous and exhausting therapy regimen.
Bob, a quiet, godly man, immersed himself in prayer for Debbie whose right leg was completely and permanently paralyzed. Eventually, she was fitted with a full metal brace and learned to walk with a degree of facility.
Bob regained some of the use of his paralyzed left leg and eventually was able to walk again, though with a very distinct limp.
After nearly a year of therapy, they were discharged from the rehabilitation hospital and returned to the college town outside New York City where Margie had been living with the children and family members who helped care for her other children.
One day not long after their discharge from the hospital, Bob received a phone call from the president of the local Christian college. Would Bob address the student body of nearly 1,000 Christian young people who were preparing for the ministry? Since this college was Bob and Margie’s alma mater, he readily agreed. His story was by now well-known, having been written up in the local newspaper as well as in the college newspaper. His had become a familiar face once again on the college campus.
The day arrived for Bob to speak in chapel. He gripped the sides of the pulpit for support and looked over the earnest, sympathetic, young people before him, some quickly wiping tears that were spilling down their faces. Most knew that eight years earlier, Bob as a student, had occupied one of the seats in this hallowed chapel.
After what seemed like an eternity, this young, first-term missionary and father held aloft his Bible and said, “Philippians 1:6. ‘Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.’ ”
Bob then delivered a thirty-minute message on so being totally and permanently committed to Christ, that neither mud slides nor Polio, nor
dust storms, nor illness, nor financial hardship would ever deter these young people from the mandate God had placed on their lives.
The response was immediate, it was overwhelming and for most, it was permanent.
In 1957, Bob and Margie returned with their family to the Philippines. Much later, Debbie, still wearing a heavy leg brace, earned a master’s degree from Penn State University and answered God’s call to the Philippines where as a missionary linguist, she translated and published several books of the New Testament into various tribal dialects.
To God be all the glory!
Scripture taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
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