Polly Hincks was 85 years old when she decided to join the local Rotary Club.
Now 86, the polio survivor was eating dinner at The McAuley retirement community last fall when she met a few members of Rotary International. She learned that the organization's major charity is the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and was invited to speak about her experience.
"I told them, I just wanted to thank you for all you've done for polio," she said.
Now, Hincks is a full Rotary member, helping to get rid of the last remnants of the disease. Polio is still endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative website.
In 1951, Hincks was 24 and pregnant with her daughter, Birch. She and her husband, Bob, and young son, Bobby, were visiting Bob's parents in the Pine Orchard borough of Branford.
She had spent a day on the small beach with Bobby, almost 2, talking to a man and his son. Later that night, the man's wife came banging on the Hincks' door, begging to use the phone because her husband was very sick, Hincks said.
Days later, Hincks came down with what felt like the flu, she said, and couldn't move her neck. The doctor said she had polio.
"It was the strangest thing, because everybody backed away," Hincks said. "If I could've backed away from myself, I would've."
Hincks spent months bed-ridden at what was then Grace-New Haven Hospital. The man from the beach was in the next room.
At first, she could walk. "Then, one thing after another stopped working," she said.
She battled polio encephalitis, which caused her to suffer delusions. She fell after trying to get out of bed, thinking she had to get to her baby in the nursery above her room.
She was very sick, unable to eat for much of the time. After the baby was born — a healthy 9-pound girl — Hincks embarked on six months of tough physical therapy.
"It was fascinating. It was a life-changing experience," she said.
Having been raised in an upper-middle class family, Hincks met many different people in the hospital.
"All of us had real problems, and we got to be the best friends," she said. "We had such fun, which doesn't seem to make sense.
"Much more deeply, I really got a whole new aspect of what life was all about," Hincks said.
When she left the hospital, she had a corset, a long leg brace and crutches. She had a hard time adjusting to life outside of the hospital and had daily help. And "I was a nervous wreck," she said.
"But then I just got better and better and better, the corset came off, the long leg brace," Hincks said. "I had two more children, we moved twice, and life was great."
Hincks spent her life volunteering, mostly for New Horizons in New Britain, and raising her family while her husband founded and ran his business, Data Management Inc. Hincks' son Dan, who owns the business now, also owns Infinity Hall in Norfolk and soon to be in Hartford.
Hincks was an admissions director at Miss Porter's School in Farmington for a short time in the 1970s, she said.
In the late 1990s, Hincks wrote a book about New Horizons – the journey of several disabled people in a wing of New Britain Memorial Hospital who eventually realized their dream of opening an independent living facility for the disabled, now New Horizons Village in Unionville.
When Hincks was in her 50s, she needed the long leg brace and crutch again. Then, she had to use a scooter to get around. After falling several times, she got a motorized wheelchair.
The chair "is just a fantastic asset," she said. "I've got my own car with a ramp; I can do pretty much anything."
She rides over to Elizabeth Park on Mondays for the Rotary luncheons. Right now, she's working on designing cards – she's an artist, too – to sell to benefit the polio charity.
"My mother said to me, maybe 20 years after, 'Polly, you're going to be very coarse with me with what I'm about to say, but I think your life is better since you had polio.'" Hincks said.
"And I said, 'You're absolutely right, it is.'"