Celebrating World Polio Day: Why the History of St. Anne’s Profoundly Matters to Me

By: Michelle Provan, Director of Marketing and Communications

St. Anne’s was originally started by three Episcopalian nuns as a convalescent home. In the 1940’s, the polio epidemic spread across the United States and killed thousands of children each summer, and paralyzed many more. St. Anne’s saw a need to help polio children and became a home for them. The Sisters treated the patients and employed rehabilitation practices. But why does that mean so much to me?

Far away in Chicago, my dad, Robert Provan, was one of those children among the thousands who had caught the polio virus. He was diagnosed with the worst type of polio at age 5. The virus affected his entire body, and he was paralyzed from the neck down. My grandparents tried a couple of specialists to no avail. In fact, they were told to institutionalize him, a common practice during this time. They were told, “He is a burden to the family, and he belongs in an institute. Just let him die.” Luckily, my grandparents searched even harder for someone to take on my father’s care, and they found Dr. Charles Pease at Chicago Children’s Memorial (now known as Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital). My father’s condition was grim, but Dr. Pease believed in an approach that had zero tolerance for coddling. His goal for my dad was to make him independent, self-reliant, and gain the ability to walk again. So, the surgeries began. 

For five years, my dad fought the disease's effects. Dr. Pease did some incredible things. He was able to perform surgeries to help my dad. He used a muscle from my dad’s leg to pull his ribcage into alignment so he could breathe. He gained the ability to move, but then he lost ability in his left foot. So Dr. Pease transplanted muscles from his foot and ankle. His right leg was shorter than his left, so to stimulate growth, he grafted a piece of ivory to the bone. Closing in on age 10, the doctors were very concerned about my dad’s survival. They had given him only a year or two to live, even after all of the treatment. Dr. Pease discussed a risky operation in which he intended to fuse most of my dad’s vertebrae in order to secure his spine. After my grandparents approved of the operation, Dr. Pease asked my dad for his permission. He told my dad there was a 50/50 chance that the procedure would fail and kill him. My dad agreed, knowing at age 10, that he may never make it off the operating table. During the operation, my dad flatlined for a few minutes. They brought him back, and then finally, a breakthrough as the surgery was successful.

Dr. Pease didn’t stop innovative treatment until the day my dad walked out of the hospital. My dad lived an exceptionally successful life. He became General Counsel of Stephen F Austin University, then General Counsel of the Texas State System, and an Assistant Attorney General of Texas. He eventually opened his own law firm in order to defend disabled patients and their doctors. He was the first lawyer to sue HMOs for denying care to sick patients in order to make a profit, and he won. That case changed the way insurance companies managed their enrollees and saved hundreds, possibly thousands of lives.

Today, his legacy lives on. His winning case is now studied at law schools, including Harvard Law School. He was featured on the cover of Wall Street Journal and Austin American Statesman. A mini-documentary aired on A&E’s Investigative Reports about the case. Today, in Pflugerville, Texas, a school, Provan Opportunity Center, operates to serve children who need social, emotional, and academic support.

In his 40s, my dad was diagnosed with postpolio syndrome, disabling signs and symptoms that appear decades after the initial polio illness. That placed a long-term strain on his physical resilience and his battle to deal with the effects of polio as well as the strain of the law case. At age 61, he died from pulmonary complications, an effect of post-polio, in July of 2006. He is buried under a large oak tree at Lindale City Cemetery.

When I walk around the stunningly beautiful campus of St. Anne’s, I am not only overcome by the elegance of the grounds but also taken away by the history of my work home. To know that I work for a school where nuns selflessly took care of children just like my father is the greatest honor to be a part of. When I see the sign in the museum that says, “There were 80 polio-stricken children who were carried into St. Anne’s. All but one walked out,” I know the power behind those words. I know what walking out truly meant. I know the love and care breathed into the fiber of this school. I know the sacrifice they gave. I know how resilient they must have been. I am honored to be a part of this institution and be employed as the storyteller of this school. 

My dad often said, “We are made to care for one another. We fill our lives with meaning by caring for someone else. Love until it hurts.” While he never knew the nuns, I am certain they lived those words too. Let us not forget the history of St. Anne’s, the gravity of what the nuns did, and the love they gave. I know I won’t.