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Great Falls woman recalls surviving and living with polio

Grayce Holzheimer.jpg
Grayce Holzheiemer at Rotary.jpg
Posted at 6:23 PM, May 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-24 20:23:57-04

GREAT FALLS — A 2022 case of polio in New York state has brought renewed awareness to the disease that many of us were vaccinated against as children.

Grayce Holzheimer of Great Falls survived polio and is sharing her story and spreading awareness.

“Because I have a leg length difference and a foot difference, I have to buy two pairs of shoes,” explained Holzheimer.

Holzheimer says she’s had a great life. She calls herself a survivor, not a victim.

In 1964 at just 16 months old, and just a week after receiving a polio vaccine, she came down with the disabling and sometimes life-threatening disease.

“I'm the one in the million,” said Holzheimer. “I've met one other girl in Canada. She's my same age. We're just figure we're one in a million.”

Even though she got polio after being vaccinated, Holzheimer is still a firm believer in getting vaccinated.

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“I'd rather have me have it and have another million kids not have polio,” said Holzheimer.

She recently shared her story with the Great Falls Rotary Club, which as part of Rotary International, is working to eradicate polio.

The disease can infect the spinal cord causing paralysis to parts of the body. The last known cases in the United States were in 1979 and today it’s endemic only in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Before she was diagnosed, doctors encouraged Grayce to walk and exercise, but after two years she got weaker.

At the age of 4, a trip to Shriner’s Hospital in Spokane revealed she had polio and needed Achilles lengthening surgery.

One of the more difficult things she remembers is being able to see but not be held by her parents.

“I was a four-year-old and my parents and family would come to see me in a beat through a plate glass window.”

Because of the stigma associated with polio, she also recalls some kids at the hospital with polio were never picked up.

“They decided to put them up for adoption,” said Holzheimer. “There are so many stories of people with polio being rejected by their family.”

Her hospital rehabilitation after surgery took her right up to the start of kindergarten.

“That was pretty tough and then I was told not to tell anybody,” said Holzheimer. “Don't tell anybody you had polio. It'll freak them out.”

Grayce never let her polio define her. She went to school as an artist and earned a master’s in sculpture and printmaking, later teaching at MSU and Great Falls College.

Grayce is one of the polio survivors who suffers from post-polio, a disorder of nerves and muscles affecting polio survivors many years after polio.

“You know, when I turned 40, things just really started happening,” said Holzheimer. “It's like you just hit a brick wall. It's a fatigue you just never would imagine.”

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She says post-polio has left her frustrated, misunderstood, and ignored - but she finds solace as a member of a local post-polio group and online support groups.

Her issues were compounded a decade ago when she was in a serious car accident requiring spinal surgery where she lost use of hands but has been gradually getting better.

Now she wants to be an advocate for new polio vaccines, pointing to last year’s case in New York where an unvaccinated person from outside the United States came down with the disease.

“If you've been vaccinated, you're okay,” said Holzheimer. “But if you haven't, I just really strongly recommend that you do. Because do you want to have a life of leg braces and unknowns? I don't think so.”

Despite having survived polio and its aftereffects, one thing that has remained constant in Grayce’s life is her positive attitude and her Type A personality.

“Try to tell us ‘no, don't do that’ and we will try to do it,” said Holzheimer.

The Great Falls Rotary Club will conduct a shred-a-thon on Tuesday, May 30 with money raised from the event going to the club's mission to end polio.

If you've got old materials like bank statements, tax returns, items that you don't want to put in the garbage, you can bring them to the Country Club and we'll shred them right here on site,” said Rotary Club member Lacey Gallagher.

In conjunction with Montana Business Archives, the club will shred two banker boxes of documents for $10 each. Additional boxes are $20. The event takes place from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm at Meadowlark Country Club.


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