Every morning, after Dennis Ogbe wakes up and says his prayers, he performs a daily exercise routine.
He does this not only because he’s a world-class athlete, but also because he’d like to be able to keep walking. Putting one foot in front of the other is a skill he has not taken for granted for decades — since doctors in his home country of Nigeria told his parents, when he was 3, that he was paralyzed from the waist down.
He was infected with polio while in a hospital being treated for malaria.
No other child or family should have to go through this, says Ogbe, since polio prevention only requires a vaccine. That’s the message in a video about him that opens Monday’s World Polio Day event in Atlanta, co-hosted by Rotary International and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ogbe, 40, has come a very long way since his polio diagnosis.
“Most people, when they saw me, they thought nothing would come of me,” Ogbe says. His parents had two options. “They could have put me on the streets as a beggar,” he explains, since that’s a frequent path for Nigerians with disabilities. Or they could encourage him to focus on his education. They chose option two.
Ogbe says he also taught himself an important lesson: Nothing could stop him from playing sports. Not a pair of crutches. Not the fear of falling. Not kids who moved their soccer games to make it tougher for him to join in.
And certainly not his parents, who worried that he would get hurt in the process.
“I was fragile and skinny,” Ogbe explains, recalling how much pain he often felt. “But I was stubborn. I wanted to do things myself,” says Ogbe, who credits athletics with helping him develop enough strength in his right leg to eventually walk unassisted. He has a limp because his left leg remains affected. (Some cases of polio, however, are far more severe and even with physical therapy a patient can’t walk.)
His upper body muscles — built up over years of using a wheelchair and crutches — came in handy in his early teens when he discovered track and field. To buy a shot put or javelin was too expensive — and required fessing up to his parents about his secret sporting life — so Ogbe improvised with heavy stones and what parts he could find at auto repair shops.
Despite his nontraditional training techniques and his limited mobility (he does his throws from a seated position), Ogbe started winning. These successes landed him the opportunity to study in the United States and to compete in the Paralympics.
“That’s how my whole journey started,” Ogbe says. Now he’s an American citizen with an MBA, a career at a Fortune 500 company, a wife, two kids and a lot of medals.
Ogbe believes the reason he has been able to overcome so many challenges is his approach to life.
“I take it one goal at a time,” he says.
So he isn’t discouraged by the big job the world faces in its effort to eradicate polio from the planet. As an advocate in the fight, he looks at it as a series of things that need to happen — raising awareness, promoting accurate health information, directing resources to people who need them.
Last month, there was bad news from Nigeria. After two years without a single case of polio anywhere in Africa, four children were found paralyzed from the disease in a northeastern state that’s a stronghold of Islamic militant group Boko Haram.
Polio seems primed for extinction. According to the World Health Organization, there were 74 reported cases in 2015 — all in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It was disappointing for Ogbe to hear about the new cases in Nigeria: He knows what difficulties lie ahead for these kids, especially in Nigeria, a country that doesn’t offer many services for people with disabilities. He hopes people tell them: “A disability doesn’t mean the end of life.” Although it won’t be easy, if they can figure out what they want, they can find a way to get there, he says.
“I always try to be practical. There’s going to be a lot of tears and heartbreak. I fall down even now,” says Ogbe, who must avoid uneven surfaces. “In a situation where I’m walking and talking, I always have to keep one eye on the ground.”
Ogbe recently visited a doctor for his annual checkup, “and she said among all of the people with polio she’s ever seen, she’s never seen anybody as healthy as me,” he says.
“I always try to be practical,” he adds. “There’s going to be a lot of tears and heartbreak. I fall down even now.”
His son is 3 years old now, the same age Ogbe was when he contracted polio. He is thankful to be raising his kids in a country where getting vaccinated is so simple.
“Doctors here have a program of what to take when. In Nigeria, many doctors don’t know the things they need to do. It’s a night and day comparison,” he says.
Americans don’t often understand the urgency of ending polio, because they don’t see the effects of it firsthand, Ogbe says.
In the village where Ogbe grew up, “there are elements of Boko Haram, and people who believe them,” he says. Their misconceptions about vaccination can be deadly, he says, which is why education campaigns are crucial.
“We need to tell [Nigerians] this isn’t Western propaganda,” Ogbe says. He says it’s important to educate them to the fact that what’s real are the disabled people they have seen on the streets.
“These things can be prevented by a drop of vaccine,” he adds.
Ogbe is confident that Nigeria — and the rest of the world — will eventually become polio-free. He’s eager to see what the kids who have been saved are able to do.
“When you have health, you have hope,” he says. “And that hope is a lifeline for people.”