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Polio ambassador: ‘There really is a possibility that we could eradicate this disease’

Minda Dentler gave her daughter the shot she never had.

Earlier this year, she held baby Maya in her arms as the infant was injected with the polio vaccine.

“It was almost like I felt like I was sort of saving her life,” Dentler said of her daughter, now 10 months old. “She will never have to be paralyzed like I am.”

Dentler’s hope for her first-born is the same as it is for everyone: that they don’t suffer from the same disease she did as an infant in India.

Her legs were paralyzed by polio.

Nearly four decades later, the world-class athlete and insurance executive who was born in India and grew up in Spokane is serving as a polio ambassador and advocate for childhood immunization.

She recently returned to her birth country, where she traveled in support of polio eradication. That’s the flagship cause of Rotary International, the worldwide service organization which sponsored her weeklong trip and kept her on a busy schedule.

“I think for me it’s sort of like coming full circle. I was born there, and my mother wasn’t able to get me vaccinated,” said Dentler, who was adopted by a Spokane couple when she was 3. “We don’t really think about it as Americans, but polio is a disease that impacted so many people worldwide. It’s very important to ensure people are getting vaccinated so the disease doesn’t spread. There really is a possibility that we could eradicate this disease.”

There’s no cure for polio, a highly infectious disease caused by a virus and most commonly spread through person-to-person contact. It can strike at any age, but polio is most common in children younger than 5 and it can cause permanent paralysis within hours.

Six years ago, India reported half of the world’s new polio cases. Last year, the country was declared polio-free by the World Health Organization. The last case there was reported in 2011.

“Today, only Pakistan and Afghanistan have reported cases of polio,” said Dr. Carol Pandak, director of Rotary International’s Polio Plus Program. “There are 16 cases in Afghanistan, and there are 41 in Pakistan. We’ve come a very long way in a short time.”

But, she said, “As long as there’s polio anywhere in the world, vaccination campaigns will continue. As we say, it’s only a plane-ride away.”

Dentler, 37, traveled to India with Rotary in mid-November, returning home just in time for Thanksgiving. It was her first visit to her birth country since she was 11 and only her second visit since she was adopted. It was also a whirlwind.

“We met a lot of people in a very short period of time,” said Dentler, noting most days featured 14 hours of activities or traveling or both. “A lot of it was getting to locations, but it was good because I got to see so much and meet so many people who are so passionate about the cause.”

At St. Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi, Dentler met Dr. Mathew Varghese, who runs India’s last remaining polio ward. In the Indian state of West Bengal, she met India’s last polio patient, 5-year-old Ruhksuh Khatoon, and participated in a march to raise awareness for childhood immunization. She was front and center, helping to lead the way behind a banner that read: “Keep India Polio Free.”

Dentler also accompanied health workers as they went door-to-door in a slum in New Delhi, taking inventory and information. And, like she did at home in New York City with her own daughter, she helped immunize children near Kolkata.

“I was two drops away from never being paralyzed,” Dentler said. “Two drops in a child’s mouth. It sounds so easy. And that’s what I didn’t have.”

The U.S. was declared polio-free in 1979, two dozen years after the polio vaccine was introduced and two years before Dentler came to America.

Here, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children in the U.S. receive four doses of the polio vaccine via injection at 2 months, 4 months, 6 to 18 months and 4 to 6 years. In India, Dentler helped administer the vaccine orally.

“It was definitely a moving trip for me,” she said, adding the experience “reinforced to me how lucky I am … Not only am I a reminder of what paralysis by polio looks like, I hope I can inspire others to continue to keep doing the work and reach all of these children.”

When the World Health Assembly passed its resolution in 1988 to eradicate polio, there were some 350,000 cases in 125 countries.

Since then, Evanston, Illinois-based Rotary International has been a core partner in the global polio eradication effort – along with the WHO, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. In all, Rotary has raised $1.5 billion for polio eradication.

“It was once thought that India would be the last country to eradicate polio because of their dense population and poor sanitation,” said Pandak, who’s met Dentler on two occasions. “She’s an example of what can happen if you don’t immunize your children. She can provide a very strong message to parents. She’s a parent herself.”

Her story resonates with people, Pandak said, because “she can tell the personal story of what it means to have polio. Polio doesn’t necessarily mean your life is over, but she has difficulties. I think it’s a great story of triumph. I think she brings hope to people, people who are affected by polio, especially children.”

Dentler had been dropped off at an orphanage in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, shortly after she contracted polio. She was about 6 months old when she became paralyzed from the hips down.

She has no memory of living in India or leaving it as a toddler. But, when she was 11, Dentler visited the orphanage in which she had once lived. Bruce and Ann Dentler took her – along with their two biological children and a son they adopted from South Korea – to visit the home countries of their two adopted children during the summer of 1989. They spent six weeks in Kasganj, southeast of Delhi, where her father, a now-retired geriatrician, was on a medical mission trip.

“I remember seeing disabled people in the street begging, thinking, ‘That could’ve been me,’ ” Dentler said. “I remember thinking, ‘Why are these people begging? Why aren’t they working, too?’ But they didn’t have the access to the things that I had.”

Bruce and Ann Dentler first saw their adopted daughter at the Spokane airport in November 1981 – “the day before Thanksgiving, I believe,” Ann Dentler said. “She was just kind of like a sack of potatoes.

“She was unable to walk. She was pretty much dead weight. She was a 3-year-old that was just hanging there, very tired.”

Dentler had her first surgeries – on her ankles – in summer 1982. About six months later, she had two more, on her hips. When she was 5, she learned to walk using leg braces and crutches.

“It was like I won the human lottery by being adopted,” Dentler said. “I got this medical attention, and I’m able to lead this active life. I would not be able to live the life that I live having a disability in India.”

Dentler graduated from Mead High School in 1996, when she moved to Seattle to study business administration and information systems at the University of Washington. After graduating in 2001, she moved to New York City, where she earned a master’s degree in business administration from Baruch College, City University of New York, in December 2007.

Today, she’s married and works as the director of multinational operations at AIG, a large insurance company located a few blocks off of Wall Street in New York City, and trains for triathlons.

In school in Spokane, Dentler had been competitive in debate and music. But it wasn’t until she was an adult that she discovered her athletic potential. She began racing about 10 years ago. And, in 2013, she became the first – and only – female handcyclist to finish the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

She took first place in the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile handcycle and 26.2-mile run, for which she used a racing wheelchair. She completed the entire 140.6 miles with only the use of her arms.

Because of this accomplishment, she was nominated for an ESPN ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete with a Disability in 2014. The same year, Glamour magazine named her one of 50 Phenomenal Women of the Year Who Are Making a Difference, and she was asked to speak at a World Polio Day event in Chicago.

“She’s not the kind of person who really enjoys being in the spotlight, but I think she recognizes there’s quite of bit of good that can come from her being a spokesman for childhood immunization,” Ann Dentler said. “She’s a pretty amazing example of what people can accomplish with disabilities if they have access to health care and resources.”

Someday, Dentler hopes to take her young daughter to India.

Meantime, she will continue training for triathlons and advocating for polio eradication and childhood vaccination.

“I think by having this first-hand experience, I am going to be able to have a more powerful impact when I come home,” Dentler said. “I’m going to be able to be a better advocate.”

For information, visit www.mindadentler.com.



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