Poliomyelitis. The Island Across the River by Jaime Martinez Tolentino

Poliomyelitis. The Island Across the River by Jaime Martinez Tolentino

Poliomyelitis. The Island Across the River by Jaime Martinez Tolentino. This is the second post of The Island Across the River, read the first one here and remember, next Monday you can read more!


Photo by George Hodan

Shortly after that, the receptionist called my name, and Mami and I were led back to an examination room. Soon, several doctors and nurses came in, and we were given more forms to fill out: permission forms for the exam, essentially. Of course, I had to translate everything for my mother. Then, they began examining my legs and my feet, and when they started asking questions about my polio history, they directed their questions at me, bypassing Mami. They also took pictures of my lower extremities, and they did a lot of measuring. The physicians dictated their jargon-filled observations into tape recorders.


Two weeks later, Mami handed me another letter from the Hospital for Special Surgery.

“¿Qué dice?” she asked me.

“It says that they think surgery on my right foot could add stability to my gait and that it could help me walk better,” I translated.

“Is that all?”

“No, ma. They’ve arranged a date for the surgery, and a date for my admission into the hospital. And they’ve included more forms for you and Papi to sign if you agree that I should have the operation.”

“Do they say anything about expenses? Because we really can’t…”

“No, ma; they repeat that it won’t cost us a cent.”

“Do you want to have the operation?”

“Sure, why not? What have I got to lose?”


And so, bright and early one day, Mami and I made the trip across town once again to the Hospital for Special Surgery. There, I was admitted for what would be the first of three separate surgeries during three consecutive summers.

Since I was only fifteen years old at the time, they assigned me to the boys’ side of a pediatric floor. I can’t recall my roommate, but I do remember that my room, the hallways and the whole hospital were spacious, immaculately clean and even luxurious. For the young patients, there were late-night snacks, movies and television, and in the daytime, there were arts and crafts classes and a beautiful, welcoming solarium where they could soak up the sun and view both the East River and the rather depressing island in the middle of the waterway, directly across from F.D.R. Drive and the hospital.


I had finished breakfast that morning, and I was reading in bed when a nurse came by to let me know that that morning I was scheduled for my pre-operative exam. I knew that the following day I was scheduled to have a surgical procedure on my right ankle, but it hadn’t dawned on me that first there would be this exam.

Shortly after the nurse left, an orderly wheeled a stretcher into the room.

“Jaime?” he inquired, and I stupidly raised my hand as if I had been in school. I also stupidly answered “Yep. That’s me!” I must have sounded like a jerk.

“Well, then, young man; climb on this here buggy and let’s go for a spin!” he said laughing. The giddiness must have been infectious.

He helped me get on the stretcher, lie down, and then he covered my body with a sheet so that I wouldn’t feel cold. When he strapped me in so that I wouldn’t fall off the stretcher, I felt as if I were in a straitjacket. A short ride through immaculate hallways and down in a spacious elevator, and we reached the floor where the hospital’s several operating rooms were located.

A nurse took over from there and she wheeled the stretcher into the operating facility. It was a large, high-ceilinged room, with curtains drawn around the glass windows that circled it. In the middle of the room, there was what I imagined to be an operating table, with huge fluorescent lights above it as well as several microphones. For a moment, I had the sudden, irrational fear that I was going to be operated upon without anesthesia!

I was transferred from the stretcher to the operating table, and I was asked to lie there, in my flimsy, back-buttoning hospital gown. Although several efficient looking but none-too-friendly nurses tried to put me at ease, I was still nervous. The idea of being operated on without anesthesia….

What occurred after that has got to be one of the most embarrassing moments in my whole life.

Two or three more nurses and several doctors entered the lecture hall/operating room, and in a flurry of activity, they proceeded to turn on all the lights above the table on which I was lying, they tested and adjusted the microphones above me, and they started up a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I watched helplessly out of the corners of my eyes.

Just then, a stately, balding, older physician entered the room, still buttoning his laboratory coat. From the way that everyone got out of his way and addressed him with deference, I assumed that he was the chief surgeon.

The older doctor walked straight over to where I lay, he introduced himself to me, he explained that this would only be an exam, he asked me to obey his requests, and he requested that I please not speak. Then, he gave a nurse an order, and immediately, the room lights went off, leaving only the powerful fluorescent lights over me on. After that, no doubt obeying another one of the chief surgeon’s orders which I did not hear, all the curtains around the glass windows surrounding the room were drawn open.

What a spectacle! Behind those curtains, and behind the panes of glass behind them, there were rows of seats occupied by white-robed men and women. Judging from their ages, and as far as I could make out, there were some slightly older doctors who could have been residents or interns, and many younger, white-robed, men and women who were all, probably, medical students. They all had headphones on, there were microphones in front of them, and from what I could make out, all of them were taking notes.

The most embarrassing moment came when, at the chief surgeon’s request, most likely, a nurse asked me to remove my flimsy hospital gown. Although I was allowed to keep my underpants on, I felt totally naked, like a guppy in a fishbowl at a pet shop filled with gawking kindergarteners.

Luckily for me and my modesty, that by then, the bright lights above the operating table shining directly into my eyes had so blinded me that I couldn’t see anything beyond the few doctors who were near me. The rest, the audience gazing upon the wretched specimen in the middle of the room, was all in darkness.

After I accepted that my modesty was a small price to pay for the possibility of walking better in the future, as well as a bargain with regard to a heath care that my parents would never have been able to afford, I accepted the prodding, the lifting of my legs and feet, the bending and unbending of my knees. All of that, of course, was accompanied by a running commentary on my medical history, and by numerous measurements of my lower extremities by physicians armed with tape measures, compasses, protractors and rubber mallets who looked more like carpenters than surgeons. I’m sure that they outlined the surgical procedure that they would perform the following day, probably in blue-prints and floor plans, but it was all so couched in medical jargon that I would not have understood it, even if I had heard it.


View Comments (5)
  • Yes, a truly testimony. Thanks, Jaime Martinez Tolentino and Yareah magazine for offering good stories every day.

  • Again waiting for next Monday. Great, Jaime

  • Thank you Ignacio and Isadora (again) for your kind words. I truly enjoyed writing THE OTHER ISLAND, and I’m glad you’ve liked the parts of it that you’ve read. My next project, which is completed, but for which I am seeking a literary agent, is a historical novel titled TAINO.

  • Rev. Robert P. Mitchell

    You may see my comments on the first article…

  • Thanks, Rev. Robert P. Mitchell. It’s a honor to publish Jaime.


is a Puerto Rican writer. At the age of four, Martinez Tolentino contracted polio, which left him crippled. In 1951, he and his family emigrated to New York City where he lived until 1966. He attended New York University where he majored in French and French literature, while also studying Spanish literature and German. As an undergraduate he participated actively in the theater. After earning a B.A. and an M.A in French literature, he returned, briefly, to his native Puerto Rico where he was named French professor at The University of Puerto Rico. Then he left for Europe to pursue further studies. In France, he studied French at the Sorbonne, and then he relocated to Spain, where he studied both French and Hispanic Literature. He received a Ph.D. in French Literature from the University of Madrid, and then he returned to Puerto Rico. Between 1970 and 1984, Martinez Tolentino taught French at the Mayaguez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, and he also published three books on French. Also during this period, he published a full-length play, and in 1984, he directed its staged version. One of his short stories was adapted for the stage in Puerto Rico in 1979. In 1980, he published his play La imagen del otro, and three years later, an original collection of short stories of the fantastic. As he continued publishing in Spanish, his interest in Hispanic literature grew. He began taking graduate courses in Spanish and Puerto Rican literature, and then taught Spanish literature at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, while still also teaching French at the UPR. In 1984, Martinez Tolentino resigned from his position as a French professor. In 1990, he became a Spanish professor at the State University of New York’s College of Buffalo, where he continued writing and producing plays. He retired from teaching in 2002, but not from writing and publishing. For a full history, you can find Jaime on Wikipedia or on his website.

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