This film tells the story of a young man, Robin Cavendish, who contracted polio in 1958. It was produced by his son, who was born two months after his father became ill.
I almost feel guilty for saying it – but in the first part of this film I actually envied the two main characters. They clearly loved each other very much, and were spending time in Kenya shortly after their marriage. The scenery was incredible, and they obviously had a very privileged life. Somehow I felt these golden days had a dreamlike quality, as though they were not quite real.
Things then came crashing down. Frighteningly quickly polio transformed a fit, healthy, carefree man into a paralysed bed ridden invalid. He could only breathe with a mechanical respirator, in hospital, and was not expected to live more than a few months. The story follows the family as they start to try to cope with this sudden tragedy.
At first Robin felt he should be allowed to die as his wife was young and “could start again”. She refused! Over the next few months, she showed incredible courage and determination – especially if one remembers that they had a tiny baby at the time. This culminated when, after a year, they made the joint decision that he should leave the hospital together with his breathing machine. This was unheard of then and went against their medical advice. Luckily a friend was able to invent a respirator built into a wheelchair – releasing Robin from the captivity of a bed. He could then travel and advocate for other disabled people to have the same machines.
So what impact did this film have on me?
I had no conception of the ferocious speed with which polio can attack a perfectly healthy person. Unlike many people in the developing world, I am lucky enough never to have seen a case of polio. This film brought to life the dreadful effects of polio in a way that facts and figures have never done for me.
It did not shy away from showing the difficulties and dangers of Robin’s condition – such as when the plug for his machine was accidentally pulled out, and the severe bleeding after years of being on a respirator. We saw some of the despair and fears they experienced over the years. Even his decision to choose the time of his own death was portrayed.
I was inspired by the example of the Cavendish family, and their friends, in developing the portable breathing apparatus, and campaigning firstly for this to be more widely available, and then more generally for the rights of disabled people. The couple, and later their young son, showed extraordinary bravery and strength over many years.
“Breathe” reminded me why Rotary’s commitment to the End Polio Now campaign is so crucial. There is a quotation that says “If you think one person cannot make a difference, try spending a night with a mosquito!” This film showed exactly how two remarkable people did make a real difference – and how we in Rotary are doing the same every time we support the fight to end this terrible disease.
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