Driven to succeed
Steve Stirling’s commitment to eradicate polio is personal.
The Indian sun shone hot on the bright flowing saris, tunics and distressed jeans of tourists ambling the broad walk toward the Taj Mahal in the city of Agra. Steve Stirling, 61, joined the flow, his corporate button-down shirt and slacks marking the rare Westerner in the crowd.
As the group approached the palatial 350-year-old mausoleum, a guide explained the building’s history and layout.
“I’m not going in,” Steve declared abruptly.
Confusion rippled through his companions, but he said it again, his syllables crisp as his cotton shirt front.
His wife Sook Hee understood immediately why her husband couldn’t come in.
Steve’s attendant pushed his wheelchair off to the side and into the leafy shade, where he waited while his companions toured the famed World Heritage site.
Speaking a week later at his waterfront home in Brunswick, Steve said the deal-breaker was the soft, disposable coverings visitors were required to slip over their shoes. He might have made it up the steep steps with crutches, he says, but he needed his rubber soles for their grip.
“I’m used to it,” he says. But in truth, Steve Stirling is more accustomed to getting his way.
Infected by the polio virus at age 1 and abandoned at an orphanage when he was 6, Steve’s life held out little hope for a bright future. But he was nothing if not determined. He was intent on finding an adoptive family, getting the best education, marrying the belle of the ball, working his way up the executive ranks of the health products industry.
Yet despite all he has achieved, he remains driven. And all along the way it’s as if every moment, every movement, has been directed at fighting the very notion he is disabled.
One house at a time
Three days earlier, in the chaos of Indian traffic, a white minivan drove Steve into a poor Delhi neighborhood. He and Sook Hee were just off 30 hours of flights from his brother’s wedding in California. He was wearing the same shirt he had on at the wedding. It remained spotless. He didn’t even stop at the hotel to change.
“I wanted to get going!” he said.
Steve and Sook Hee were not visiting India on vacation. They were there so Steve could participate in India’s national polio immunization effort. He’d come as a member of Rotary International, a business networking group that has more than 100,000 members in India and has helped fund and lead the country’s eradication of polio. Over the course of one week, volunteers working with government health workers across the country would aim to immunize every child in India up to the age of 5 — 170 million children.
They would stake out train stations and roam train cars, and set up folding tables at neighborhood health centers, temples and mosques.
But on this day, Steve and a group of a half-dozen Westerners and Indians led by Dr. Sucheta Bharti were going house-to-house in the Raghubir Nagar neighborhood, asking parents if they could squeeze two drops of live vaccine into the mouths of their children.
The neighborhood is filled with used-clothing vendors. On the street a pair of men sorted through a brilliant mound of saris. An underground pipe had broken and flooded a playground, but children played in it anyway.
Steve moved through the neighborhood by first swinging his crutches forward, then swinging his legs forward. He advanced more than a yard with each maneuver. He and his entourage instantly attracted an amiable crowd.
He posed for selfies and played Give Me Five with the boys and girls, who laughed and got the game when he yanked back his hand.
At one household, Guri Dantani was reluctant to allow her son, Kajal, 2 1/2, to be vaccinated, but she relented.
Then she invited Steve to tea.
The rest of the crew struggled to mask their reluctance, but Steve didn’t hesitate.
The visitors crowded into the family’s 8-by-10-foot room, painted blue with a circular painting in the center of the floor and colorful posters of the Hindu deities Krishna and Radha on the wall. A long cloth sling stretched wall-to-wall near the ceiling, a cradle for the toddler.
As Guri brewed the tea someone brought in a white plastic chair, broken on one side and stitched back together. Steve sat and Guri served the fragrant sweet brew with milk and cardamom.
It was the best tea the group would taste all week.
“What a great day,” Steve said on the way back to the van. “They don’t even know what it’s like to have polio. It’s hard to imagine what you’re preventing until you go through it.”
Poliomyelitis — commonly known as polio — is a highly infectious viral disease that often afflicts children.
Transmission is cruelly easy, from person to person, or through infected water or food. Most who get the poliovirus probably never know it. Often there are no symptoms at all. If symptoms occur, they may mimic the flu: sore throat, fatigue, nausea. Usually they pass after a few days.
But in some patients, the virus enters a nerve cell in the brain or spine, where it multiplies and kills the cell. Those cells are the ones that tell the muscles to move. For a few patients, the results can be paralysis in the legs or, if it affects the muscles that move the lungs, death.
Polio epidemics were common every summer in the U.S. starting in 1916. The worst occurred in the 1940s and ’50s. In a 1949 epidemic, there were 42,000 cases of polio reported and nearly 3,000 deaths.
The Salk vaccine licensed in 1955 and the Sabin vaccine that came shortly after did away with polio as a widespread threat in the United States.
But polio still exists today in parts of Asia neighboring India, as well as Nigeria. It is endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where immunization workers face assassination by religious extremists.
Until the 1990s, polio paralyzed hundreds of children a day in India. Rotary took on polio with aggressive fundraising and lobbying. In 1988, its PolioPlus initiative, in partnership with global health organizations and governments, aimed to eradicate polio by 2000.
That hasn’t happened. But the change still has been dramatic. Resistance to polio vaccination in India has ebbed. Neighborhoods that once forbade health workers to so much as open a vaccine case now accept them without a second thought. Muslim families, once concerned vaccination was a population control plot, now open their children’s mouths for the drops. To date Rotary has spent about $198 million on polio in India alone.
In 2014, the World Health Organization declared India polio free.
There are still bound to be occasional cases. The virus in the oral drops is weakened, but it’s live so infection from the vaccine does happen. A recent account in a French newspaper reported that regular Indian surveillance turned up 11 cases of paralysis that could not be proved or disproved as polio.
But that’s a far cry from the waves of paralysis once unleashed by the wild virus.
Born Cho Myung Soon in Seoul in 1956, Steve Stirling contracted polio when he was 1. The muscles were rendered useless in one leg and nearly useless in the other. The bones in his legs became stunted. But he survived; the son of his father’s friend was not so lucky. That was life without immunization.
In 1950s South Korea, times were hard. Steve’s parents separated, splitting the brothers and sisters among them. He and his sister went with their dad from a nice home to a dingy one where caterpillars dropped from the ceiling.
His father was a dignified, sober man, but one night he got drunk and passed out. Steve was 6. He thought his father was dead.
The next day Steve’s father took him to the entrance of Holt children’s services center in Ilsan, an orphanage.
“Crawl over there and cry,” he told his son. “Someone will come get you.”
Steve did. Someone came.
And his dad was gone.
“Every day for three weeks, I crawled back to that spot, thinking he’d come back for me,” Steve said. “But he never came back.”
Three weeks later, Steve’s 3-year-old sister, Mary Ellen, was delivered to the orphanage by a relative.
She became Steve’s aide.
For nearly four years they lived in the orphanage, a Christian institution established by an American couple. Steve was housed in a back room with the physically and mentally disabled boys. All the paralyzed kids could do was scoot around on the floor, but Mary Ellen would hold Steve’s legs like a wheelbarrow so he could walk on his hands. Sometimes she carried him on her back. Unlike the other children at the orphanage, Steve recalled, the disabled kids weren’t permitted to go to school. But they made an exception for Steve once he received donated crutches.
Steve was bright, but the kids in the school picked on him relentlessly. He tried retaliating by throwing his crutches at them, but they just laughed. After school, he would return to his disabled roommates and take out his anger and frustration on them. His arms were strong from the crutches and he could deliver a blow.
This was not the life he wanted.
Lyn Stirling and her husband, Jim, an engineer, married and created a home on the West coast, eventually moving to Anchorage, Alaska, for his work. Thinking they were unable to conceive, they adopted two American children, and eventually had their own biological son. But they wanted a bigger family. Inspired by a neighbor who adopted a pair of children from South Korea, the Stirlings decided to give two orphans from the East Asian nation a home.
They traveled to South Korea and chose two healthy children from the Holt orphanage. As they were leaving, the Stirlings handed out pieces of candy to the other children. They were puzzled when they noticed a little girl take her piece and run back into the building.
An employee explained the girl had a brother who was paralyzed, and she shared everything with him.
The Stirlings insisted on meeting these children.
“They went to us immediately and hugged us and stayed with us,” said Lyn, recalling the first time she and Jim met Steve and Mary Ellen. “We just looked at each other and raised our eyebrows, and that was it.”
One major problem, though. A federal law restricted the number of foreign children an American couple could bring into the U.S. to two. To bring in four, Lyn would have to change the law. So she set out to do that. The Stirlings took the first two children they had chosen home with them to California and left Steve and Mary Ellen behind with a promise to do everything they could to bring them home.
“I wrote letters and letters and letters until I was blue in the face and then more letters,” she said. They figured out who to lobby and went at it.
Back in South Korea, Steve launched his own lobby campaign. He began writing a series of letters to the Stirlings.
“Dear Mom and Dad! Mom and Dad how are you doing these days? I was so glad to here (sic) from Mom and Dad … I will be waiting here till I go to States,” he wrote in a letter dated April 1966.
After two years of letter writing, both Lyn and Steve would declare victory. The Stirlings’ legislation passed Congress. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the papers lifting the ban so Steve and Mary Ellen could come to the United States and start life in Anchorage with their American family.
Although Steve was 10 when he arrived in the Stirling home, Lyn carried him around like he was a baby rather than watch him struggle to get around.
“He was little and light,” Lyn recalled.
But one day, someone offered Lyn a piece of unasked-for advice.
Don’t you do that to him. He’s intelligent and he’ll manage, a neighbor told her.
“She was correct,” Lyn said. She immediately stopped, although it was hard for her to watch at first when he struggled on crutches, scooted or was slow.
Steve had household chores, too, like all the other kids.
At the orphanage, Steve was known as a mischief-maker. On one occasion, he released a giant jar of frogs across the orphanage floor when he was denied permission to go on a field trip. That behavior didn’t stop in the U.S. If he liked a girl, he might poke her bottom with his crutch. One night some schoolmates’ parents called the Stirlings. Steve had cleaned up in a game of marbles at school, but offered to re-sell the kids their marbles. The parents wanted their kids’ lunch money returned.
But Steve had drive. His energy went toward achievements, trading one kind of mobility for another. He was class president; he won citizenship awards. And he got academic scholarships to attend Cornell University, where he studied agricultural economics.
What he didn’t excel at was meeting girls, but that didn’t stop him from trying.
One day, after years of defeat, he made inroads with a girl.
Not just any girl: Sook Hee was a knockout.
Among the few Korean-Americans in Anchorage, Steve and Sook Hee knew each other well. She was always polite to him, but she saw through his offers to help her study. She had her suitors, some rich and well known.
Then one Christmas break, Steve was home from grad school, and Sook Hee was in a reflective mood.
She thought about the trouble women had in South Korea with handsome and well-off men. Business networking there sometimes involved carousing with women. She suspected her own father engaged in such behavior. An adolescent encounter with one of his women acquaintances had deeply shaken her.
Over Christmas break, Steve asked her to a party and she accepted. When school resumed, Steve began another letter-writing campaign, this one aimed at winning Sook Hee. He also made a lot of phone calls for good measure.
But what are you going to do if he asks you to marry him? Sook Hee’s mother asked.
I’ll say yes, she said.
When she accepted Steve’s proposal, her father was shocked and unhappy.
She explained to him that given the choice between a man healthy in body but weak in the mind and a man weak in body but healthy in the mind, she would choose the latter.
Fine, but if you divorce him you’ll never come back to this house, her father said.
Steve and Sook Hee married in 1982.
Rocky home life
Soon after he and Sook Hee married, Steve received his MBA at Northwestern. He took a job with a subsidiary of Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson, which had given him scholarships for his MBA, and the couple started out in a suburb of Philadelphia. The Johnson & Johnson connection shaped his life; he had always thought of himself as a finance guy, a job that he felt would be secure. But the president of the subsidiary suggested he go into marketing, where he could help shape a company’s strategy. Steve loved it. Three years later they moved to the New York City area so Steve could work on the launch of Advil for American Home Products. He didn’t love his two-hour commute there by transit, especially considering that he couldn’t hold an umbrella and work his crutches too.
After the launch he switched companies and they moved to Evansville, Indiana, where he worked on nutritional products for a division of Bristol-Myers Squibb. They decided to start a family, although they assumed they would have fertility problems. Not only was Steve’s disability a possible factor, but in Sook Hee’s family, the women had often taken years to conceive.
One day Sook Hee had a vision. A Buddhist and a lifelong philosophy seeker, she was praying about getting pregnant when she heard a voice telling her to pray to the one that can create life. Seven days later, in the dark of night as she prayed, she saw light flash on the wall in the shape of a cross. She again heard a voice, saying she would conceive a son, and she needed to go to church.
Two weeks later she learned she was pregnant. That’s when she told Steve about her vision.
She found a church, and her faith grew.
Their son was born in 1986, and a daughter followed two years later.
But Sook Hee’s deepening faith created tension in the family.
Steve had always called himself Christian, since his earliest days in the Christian orphanage. But Sundays were a battle over whether he’d go with the family to church. He made petty comments, calling Sook Hee a Bible-thumper.
There were other struggles, too. When they first married, Steve would come home from work and run his finger through furniture dust. He scrutinized Sook Hee’s checkbook spending. She was no doormat and came to regret that promise to her father.
“She was going to leave me,” Steve says.
Sook Hee wasn’t perfect either. She would boil over, making those threats to leave in front of the kids.
Then one day, God told Sook Hee: Leave Steve to me.
Revisiting the past
Steve never intended to look for his birth family. He didn’t care, he said. His family was in the United States.
But Sook Hee felt differently. She thought perhaps his mother regretted giving him up.
“Maybe she had nails in her heart for 30 years,” she said.
Finally, Steve relented. It was having his own kids that did it, realizing how a parent feels.
They located the Cho family. His biological father was dead, but his birth mother and siblings were alive.
Sitting in a hotel room with them in Seoul for their first meeting, Steve kept it together, holding onto his reserve even as his birth mother and sisters broke down. What got him was when his brother, standing still in a corner, came over for a hug and started to weep. Steve lost it.
Over the course of several days, he heard family stories and saw pictures and papers that told him his own story in a new way.
After Steve contracted polio, his birth mother and birth father went into crisis. His father thought Steve’s only chance was to go to the orphanage where half-Korean children of American GIs were held, in the hopes he would be adopted and go to the U.S. He believed Steve could have a better life there.
He knew Steve’s mother would never allow it. She wanted to cater to Steve’s disability, to have people at home help him instead of teaching him to do things on his own.
So his father took him to the orphanage without telling his mother. And he wouldn’t tell her where the boy was, knowing she would go retrieve him.
Steve’s father bore another dark burden, too. He suspected he knew how Steve got polio. That friend’s son who died — Steve’s father had gone to the funeral. Only later did he find out the child died of polio. He believed he had caught the polio virus at the funeral and brought it back to Steve.
According to Steve’s biological brother in South Korea, after abandoning Steve, their father never smiled again.
Asked what he would say to his father were he given the chance, Steve paused for several minutes and his eyes welled with tears.
“I’d say, ‘Thank you.’”
Three years after the trip to South Korea, Sook Hee convinced Steve to attend a Christian weekend retreat for men.
When he came back, she could see change in his eyes. He asked her forgiveness.
He dates that weekend as the start of his real conversion. The turning point came when a preacher talked about giving God glory. Steve suddenly realized his whole life had been about proving what he alone could accomplish. He felt he’d been taking credit for God’s work.
Steve continued to play a major role at companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb and Conagra. He still loved corporate life but it had shortcomings. He missed out on full membership in the boys’ club because of his disability.
“Unless you play golf or tennis with these guys — and I didn’t do either — you don’t know what’s happening,” he says.
In 1999 he went to work for Ameritrade, an online stock brokering company. He came up with a brilliant idea to attract customers, but it was working too well, he says. He started seeing emails from customers who couldn’t stop trading.
“I realized my whole life was all about money, making stock money,” Stirling says. “It sucks you right in.”
When the market crashed a year later, he was laid off.
Now that he had a little time on his hands, he began to reflect on his life. About that time, the woman who founded his orphanage, Bertha Holt, died and was to be honored in a Korean funeral. He decided to go.
That trip brought him face to face with his own dark side.
On his previous trip to South Korea in 1991, Steve had visited the orphanage, but he hadn’t gone all the way inside. He didn’t want anything to do with it. This time, in 2000, he couldn’t avoid it; the funeral was held at the orphanage. For the first time in 34 years he saw the room where he’d lived.
At the funeral, Steve played the visiting guest, greeting people he’d once known. Among them was Song, a man with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair who still lived at the facility. He had been one of the disabled boys Steve had beaten in the orphanage.
Song, do you remember me? Steve asked.
Song remembered Steve well. He reminded Steve of the abuse he had meted out to him and other boys in the disabled ward. Steve had blocked it from his memory, but it all came flooding back.
Please forgive me, Steve asked Song.
I forgave you a long time ago, because Jesus Christ forgave me, he said.
“It was totally unexpected,” Steve says, recalling the event. “It was a turning point in my life. I thought, what am I doing in my life?”
Moments like this over time led Steve to embrace his Christian faith. And once Steve turned to religion, a seismic shift occurred in his thinking.
“Before I became a Christian, I denied that I was handicapped,” Steve said. “I would not (associate) with handicapped people. I was bitter about it. I tried to not even recognize it by forgetting about it.”
Now he began to think he’d been handicapped for a purpose. He could feel true compassion for handicapped people, as well as, perhaps, for himself.
On the job front, Steve found himself with two offers. One in the corporate world with a big salary. The other at a Christian charity. Steve’s been in the nonprofit world since then. He recently became CEO of MAP International, a global charity based in Georgia that distributes medicines to organizations in dozens of countries dealing with severe poverty or neglected diseases.
Photo: Kiran, 27, a polio sufferer, is pictured inside the polio ward at St. Stephen's hospital in Delhi.
One of them
Two days into Steve’s mission in India, he learns that parents in two Indian states are resisting the nation’s next step in vaccinations, measles, because of rumors they’ve read on the internet that the vaccine causes autism. The disgraced scientist who popularized the idea had his paper repudiated by the journal that published it, but the rumor persists in some circles.
The news affronts Steve.
“The parent has all the power,” he says. “If they decide not to get the child vaccinated because of something they believe, it’s the child that gets sick and lives the rest of their life with the consequences.”
Steve comes face-to-face with those consequences one day at St. Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. The large hospital holds India’s only polio ward, run by Dr. Mathew Varghese, a familiar face in international media reports on polio.
Steve enters a room for young men handicapped by polio. They’ll spend months there undergoing surgeries and physical rehabilitation in hopes that they will transition from crawling to walking with braces.
The room is small. Ten metal-frame beds line the walls, each marked at the head with the patient’s name and region in a hand-lettered sign. Bright white hospital light illuminates the white sheets and white walls. Each patient sits on his bed, misshapened legs and feet outstretched in front of them. Some limbs are clamped or pierced with surgical contraptions.
Dressed in his corporate shirt and slacks and with his head held high, Steve’s carefully crafted image projects power and success to the patients. A translator relays the story he tells of his life, and his listeners are rapt. Their eyes glance down to his crutches when they get to the part about him being a CEO.
“We can’t use our bodies,” Steve tells them. “But we can use our brains.”
Two young men nod intently.
When he’s done, Steve encourages questions.
They want to know if he is married, if he has children, if the children have jobs of their own. He tells them about his son and daughter and their careers. He points out Sook Hee standing at the side of the room, smiling.
No one asks, but he offers to show them his leg braces. He lifts his pant leg, exposing his misshapen limbs and the special long johns he wears to shield his flesh from the metal braces.
The patients crane their necks, scoot forward, lean down, examine.
In the women’s ward, he gives a similar talk. He shows his braces. When he recounts the time he threw his crutches at his tormentors, they nod and laugh.
One of the patients, Kiran, 27, is an artist. She shows Steve a photograph of one of her paintings depicting a school of fish swimming round an underwater mountain.
“It’s expressing the struggles in life, but we go around and around,” she says through a translator.
As Steve starts to leave the room, Kiran speaks up from the back of the room and the entourage stops to listen, although they don’t speak her language. She speaks passionately, at length.
“You have inspired them to want to do more,” the translator says.
Leaving the polio wards behind, Steve is uncharacteristically quiet as the group makes its way to the elevator. Typically Steve is full of praise in these moments, but not this time.
Inside the elevator, Steve slumps against the back wall. He appears exhausted, but a half-smile lingers on his lips.
“How do you think it went?” he’s asked.
He shakes his head.
Reflecting on that moment a few days later, Sook Hee says, “I saw something I hadn’t seen before.”
In the past, she says, “ he didn’t want to see himself in them. But I can tell now he’s proud of it. And he’s giving others energy.”
ABOUT THE STORY
Earlier this year, a representative of Rotary International, which holds its annual convention in Atlanta this weekend, suggested the AJC cover its polio vaccination efforts with Steve Stirling’s trip to India. But it quickly became clear that the deepest story lay in the journey of Stirling himself, starting long before he made it to India. The story had particular resonance for reporter Ariel Hart as a health care reporter, given the damage being done in the U.S. by misinformation about vaccinations. In reporting this story, Ariel visited the Stirlings at their home in Brunswick and accompanied them on their mission to India. There she saw how sometimes the greatest strength lies in surrendering to a connection with other human beings.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Ariel Hart is a staff writer at the AJC who reports on the subject of health care. Since she came to the AJC in 2005 she has covered subjects including voting rights, transportation and politics, and was a reporter on the award-winning series Doctors & Sex Abuse.