Keira Cromwell, 10, plans to celebrate her 11th birthday with a Harry Potter-themed party. Eleven years old, she says, is the age to enter Hogwarts, the magical boarding school where Harry starts most of his adventures.
Indeed, her life already has been magical. She has survived 10 years with the aftereffects of polio. She was diagnosed with the disease before she was 6 months old and has never known life without it.
Her smile lights up a room. Her forward-looking hopes and plans keep her piling on accomplishments.
What is polio?
Polio is a virus that many people under 50 or 60 may only have heard of as an exotic condition affecting primitive countries. In fact, polio at one time ravaged American schools, hospital nurseries and other places where children spent time. Campaigns to help find a cure showed children breathing with iron lungs, on crutches and in wheelchairs.
The condition strikes mostly children. It’s spread by airborne residue from coughing, sneezing and unsanitary living conditions. The virus attacks mainly the nervous system. The damage prevents muscles and other organs from developing properly.
On the bright side, the disease is the poster child for vaccinations. In the mid-1950s, the Salk vaccine all but eliminated polio in the United States and the developed world. Still in some less-developed countries, and in countries where superstitions about modern medicine inhibit immunizations, vaccinations can be unavailable.
Keira is from Vietnam, where vaccinations can be iffy, depending on social status and other factors, even though medical practices are modern. She was placed for adoption as an infant. Keira contracted the most lethal form, one that kills in the first year of infection. Keira’s adoptive mother, Heather Cromwell, said that once her daughter was diagnosed, her life was saved by hospital care in Ho Chi Minh City.
But the damage had been done. It mainly struck Keira’s joints in her legs. Keira has had four major surgeries since her family brought her back from Vietnam. More are expected. She moves between a wheelchair and walking.
Keira takes it in stride, though. “I fall down sometimes,” which she considers simply a nuisance.
Keira wants to grow up to be a knee doctor so she can help her mother and grandmother, Monica Cromwell. The family lives in O’Fallon, Ill.
Keira loves the stage, having just completed a speaking role in “Beauty and the Beast” produced by Variety, the Children’s Charity of St. Louis. Incidentally, during the performance, she stood from her wheelchair and walked to her stage mother — and got a standing ovation.
She’s in rehearsal for her next play.
She also does commercials, the most frequent, one for Spectrum cable services.
She’s a children’s ambassador for Shriners Hospitals for Children, the St. Louis campus just east of Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Much of her time there she performs in commercials, does fundraising and works toward publicizing the hospital’s services.
She also plays with other children there. They talk with one another about the Mindcraft video games, Harry Potter, Star Wars. She can’t recall ever discussing individual disabilities with other children — hers or theirs.
Shriners Hospitals, incidentally, provide free services for children with orthopedic and neurological disabilities and cancer.
Heather Cromwell said she and Keira’s grandmother had finished the paperwork for the adoption and even received a photo of the infant girl.
“They insisted she was healthy,” Heather Cromwell said. But when they met her, the child had all of the symptoms of having contracted some sort of disease that inhibited her development.
“That wasn’t the issue with us,” she said. “She was our daughter.”
The hospital in Ho Chi Minh City stabilized Keira, and she came home, to St. Louis. Since then, surgeries realign and strengthen her body.
Keira’s preoccupation with magic comes from attachment to the Harry Potter books. In kindergarten, she used to read to other children in book circles.
Her family won’t say that school bullying influenced the decision to home-school her. But children would hold her down and try to remove her leg braces. Keira insists that that was because she told other children curious about them that she didn’t like the braces.
Kindergarten was her last year in public school, though. She has been home schooled since and now is in the fifth grade.
That also gives her flexible time to do all the things she likes to do. Her priority: “I’m glad I survived,” she said. Her secret for her forward-looking life: “I accept who I am,” she says.