Professor reflects on life with polio in new book



Mark Sternhagen was only 18 months old when he contracted a severe case of polio that left him capable of walking only with the assistance of braces and crutches. And now he has decided to share his story.

Sternhagen’s “Normal For Me” is an autobiography which looks at most of his life and his battle with polio. He persevered through the adversity to have a 30-year career in teaching as well as owning a computer consulting business.

The motivation behind writing the book was due to his sense of duty to “explain to people what it is like to be a handicapped person in the world.” He also wanted to share his stories with other polio survivors and try to offer more information to those in the medical field about the almost-eradicated disease.

“I gained a better understanding of the effects of polio by observing Mark’s everyday struggles with his disability,” said Tracia Hogue, the student services facilitator at South Dakota State University. “Working with Mark made me realize how difficult it can be for people in wheelchairs and made me more aware of the issues they deal with every day.”

His resilience inspired many, including his own cousin, Jane Rokusek, who assisted him in writing the book. Her contribution can be noticed on the cover where she says, “His journey is one of bravery as he met challenge after challenge without giving up.”

Sternhagen proceeded to spend the next two and a half years after being diagnosed at the hospital. He was sent to Omaha to be placed in a polio ward for over a year.

“I rarely saw my parents in that year,” Sternhagen said. “It was a hard choice but ultimately it was the right choice.”

A year later he spent some time at the “Crippled Children Hospital” which later changed its name to LifeScape in Sioux Falls. The hospital also specialized in polio.

Walking was always a difficult task for Sternhagen. Up until his teenage years he would fall at least once a day, even with the assistance of braces and crutches.

Sternhagen believes that one of the main factors that led to him contracting polio was that he was never vaccinated. According to him, when the polio vaccine came out, his parents were among the first to attempt to get it but failed because he was either sick or there was a shortage. Among other reasons, he hopes that his book could offer more reasons as to the importance of vaccination.

Sternhagen has attempted to write this book several times before, but has finally managed to finish it. The most difficult part was typing for long periods of time since he still suffers from carpal tunnel problems which result in sore muscles. The 139-page book took about six months to get published and is now available on Amazon and the SDSU University Bookstore.