our son is going to ?die within a week,” ?the family physician announced to Alexander and Carrie Watson. “If the paralysis continues creeping toward his neck and the respiratory muscles become involved, he can’t possibly live. Even if he lives, he’ll never be able to walk again.”
Just a few days before the doctor’s announcement, Paul, only 5 years old, had gone swimming with his older brothers in a nearby creek. A few days later Paul came down with a high fever and aching pain in his whole body. He soon became completely paralyzed from his chest down. The only voluntary control he had over his body was moving his head and arms.
More than 70 years ago when the family doctor diagnosed his condition as infantile paralysis, or polio, as it is called today, very little was known about the disease. There was no effective treatment for it. Apparently the water where the boys had been swimming was contaminated, which resulted in Paul’s contracting the virus.
Two weeks later the doctor stopped by to offer his condolences on the loss of the Watson’s son. He was amazed to see Paul alive. Even then he warned them that Paul wouldn’t be able to walk again.
Faith and Works
During this critical time Paul’s ?parents prayed that God would spare their son’s life. Their neighbors, friends, and church members joined in praying for Paul, asking for a miracle on his behalf. The pastor and elders followed the biblical admonition: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up” (James 5:14, 15, NRSV).*
After two months of agonizing pain, Paul began to regain some of the feeling in his arms and legs. With this glimmer of hope Paul determined to walk again. Paul’s parents did everything within their power to help him. They spent hours daily massaging his shrunken muscles and preparing fresh, nourishing food from their own garden. Paul’s arms were soon strong enough that he could feed himself and even pull himself across the floor with his legs dangling behind.
Paul’s aunt brought a brand-new red tricycle to their house, promising Paul, “It’s yours as soon as you can ride it three times around the house all by yourself.”
After a time he was able to sit on the tricycle, but he wasn’t strong enough to pedal it. So his brothers pushed him around the yard. Paul’s legs gradually got stronger and several months later he was able to pedal the tricycle unaided.
One evening, with the family gathered around the large fireplace with its brightly burning logs, Paul crawled from one individual to another. He managed to reach the dining room table and grasped its corner. To the amazement of all, he pulled himself upright and took one, two, three steps!
That evening at worship the family thanked God for the miracle they had witnessed. Even though Paul had not been healed instantly, his condition steadily improved. After a year Paul could walk without the aid of braces or crutches, although a slight limp would always be a reminder of God’s answer to the many prayers that saved his life.
Paul and his mother formed a very close relationship, for he spent much of his time helping her in the kitchen. She influenced him to give his life to Jesus and encouraged him to get a good education so he could be a blessing to others. She hoped he would become a pastor.
Upon completion of church school, Paul determined to go to the academy near Chattanooga, Tennessee. By this time his father had stopped attending church, and he objected to Paul, or any of his sons, leaving home. He said he needed them on the farm. Besides, he had no interest in paying tuition.
But Paul would not be deterred. He soon found work after school and during summer vacation, and he began to save his money. He cleaned up after mechanics in a nearby garage. He mowed lawns and raised a garden, selling the produce. He even ran a paper route and did various jobs for his neighbors.
After academy Paul wanted to go on to college and study for the ministry. He managed to save $600 during the summer. He had become good at milking cows while growing up on his father’s farm, so he applied for a job in the college dairy. Besides working at the dairy, Paul took on several other jobs in order to pay for his expenses, including working in the furniture shop and the broom factory, as well as in the laboratories of the science building. During summers he sold Christian books in Tennessee, Florida, and North Carolina.
While working in the college dairy Paul first got a taste of being a physician. The farm manager was concerned about losing a couple of calves in the process of birthing, so Paul offered to help in difficult deliveries. After saving many calves during birth, Paul got the nickname “Dr. Pullum.”
At college Paul met Ruth Risetter, and the summer before his senior year they were married. She had already finished college, and with both of them working they managed to pay their expenses. Since there were only a few openings for the many theology students who graduated following World War II, Paul and Ruth accepted teaching positions at the two-room church school in Covington, Kentucky.
After teaching one year Paul decided to become a laboratory technician. Paul and Ruth moved to Louisville so he could attend technical school there. To help pay expenses he drove a taxi in the afternoons and Ruth worked as a bookkeeper. Upon completion of his lab course, Paul planned to work as a lab tech for $300 a month.
His plans, however, were interrupted by a letter from “Uncle Sam.”
Rejected during World War II with a 4-F rating because of his history of polio, Paul felt sure he would be excused from service. The Army, however, desperately needed trained laboratory technicians, as well as teachers.
At his induction he asked the examining doctor. “Look at my spindly legs, and the tremor of my right hand. Has someone made a mistake?”
The doctor put his hand on Paul’s forehead. “You’re warm,” he said. Then putting his hand on Paul’s chest he said, “Your heart’s beating. You’re in the Army!”
Thirty minutes later Paul was on his way to Fort Pickett, Virginia, where he was assigned to teach first aid.
The first day on the base Paul realized he faced a problem. Because of the weakness of his legs, he knew he wouldn’t be able to do all the physical activities required of a medic. He approached a master sergeant: “I’m willing to do anything you ask, but I have a problem with weak leg muscles from having had polio when I was 5 years old. It would be difficult for me to walk miles a day carrying a 60-pound pack. If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”
The master sergeant told Paul to return the next day. When Paul saw him the sergeant said, “I’ve got it all worked out. Each morning when the other recruits are doing heavy physical activities, you’ll go up to the library and study. You can then teach one of the medical classes in the afternoon.”
From Fort Pickett Paul was transferred to the dispensary of the Army headquarters at the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. This soon led to another assignment at a security ?installation outside Washington, D.C.
Taking It to the Next Level
By this time Paul was finding lab work boring. After getting acquainted with some doctors, he decided to become a physician. The many obstacles he faced growing up had taught him valuable lessons about determination and perseverance. He felt that as a doctor he could help others to have confidence in what one can do through God’s power to overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles.
Paul took some science courses in the evening at a nearby university. By the time he had completed a year’s classes, he was discharged from the Army.
After earning top grades at the university he was able to graduate after only one year at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University). Because of their frugal living, and with both working, Paul and Ruth were able to save $4,000 to begin medical school in Loma Linda, California. The G.I. Bill provided enough so that Paul was able to finish his medical course free of debt.
During his internship Paul was invited to do mission work in Thailand. He accepted the invitation of being in charge of the Phuket hospital.
Upon arriving in Bangkok, Paul and Ruth spent several months learning the Thai language before going to Phuket. Financial losses at Mission Hospital Phuket had led leaders to consider closing it down. Paul saw this not as a threat, but as a challenge. He asked for time to evaluate the situation before a final decision was made.
Because Paul knew the Thai language, the number of patients soon increased. The hospital became overcrowded and there was a need for a larger facility. The community and patients were so pleased with the work both Ruth and Paul did that a large piece of property was donated for a new hospital. Before the Watsons left the area, funds had been raised to build a brand-new hospital that is still in operation today!
Although retired, Paul still teaches a Sabbath school class, serves as an elder of the church, and works in his garden. He uses as his motto the words of the apostle Paul: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13, NRSV).
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright ” 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Lillian R. Guild is retired after serving as a Bible worker for many years. She lives in Loma Linda, California. This article was published June 10, 2010.