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Health

'Breathe' Offers a New Take on Love In Hollywood — With a Story About Polio

Polio is an infectious disease that once paralyzed millions around the world, but in 2017 it is now eradicated from all but three countries. Because of this, it doesn’t often appear in the media — and especially not in a blockbuster film.

But that may be about to change.

One of this year’s highly anticipated films, starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, and directed by Andy Serkis, is a love story about overcoming the struggles of polio.

“Breathe,” opening around the world this month, manages to convey its message with wit, innovation and, of course, love at the heart of it all.

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Robin and Diane Cavendish were married in 1957, and by 1958, at age 28, Robin had become paralyzed from the neck down by polio. He was confined to a hospital bed and ready to die, but his wife Diane wouldn’t have it. Instead, she broke him out of the hospital and the couple became advocates for the disabled, giving Robin the chance not just to survive, but “to truly live.”

Originally given just months to live, Robin lived until 1994, dying at age 64. He was able to do that thanks to a respirator wheelchair he created with the help of engineer Teddy Hall. Robin worked to dispel the belief that to be disabled meant to abandon life’s greatest joys. In his chair, he hosted and attended parties, and travelled through Europe.

Global Citizen had the chance to speak with film producer Jonathan Cavendish, who is also Robin and Diane’s son.

In the film, Robin becomes paralyzed over night. Is that actually how quickly the polio affected him?

Yes, it is. He felt ill during the day and played sport and fell over, and felt weird, and his arms started hurting very badly. And he went to sleep and he woke up in the night feeling worse, and went to hospital … It was pretty quick.

Did your family know anything about polio at the time?

My parents were going to be vaccinated but my father’s boss (he was working in the tea business) came over unannounced and they just didn't do it that day, and then they never quite got around to it a few months later.

Interestingly, my mother, who was pregnant, about a month before my father fell ill had about a week where she wasn't quite in a coma, but she couldn't move and nobody knew what was wrong with her. And then she completely, fully recovered. Afterwards it was speculated that she possibly had the poliovirus but possibly because of the antibodies generated by the baby, i.e. me, she managed to throw it off. It’s a speculation, but a lot of doctors we’ve spoken to since think that must have been what happened.

How did your parents first respond to the diagnosis?

My mother was told he would be dead in a few weeks, and then he amazingly managed to survive. Then he was taken in a plane to England, and put in a hospital, and for a year and a half or so, he lived in hospital. And it would be true to say at that stage, he suffered from very, very severe depression, and didn’t wish to continue. But nobody would help him. He couldn't move so he couldn't turn his machine off, so he was stuck. My mother, bit by bit, persuaded him to rouse, as in the film, and persuaded him to make a go of it. And he said, ‘Alright, but if I'm going to make a go of it, I’ve got to move out of hospital.’

So they broke out of hospital, which in those days, nobody with that degree of disability, certainly in England, had ever lived outside hospital before. And that moment [in the film] where the consultant shouts after them, “You’ll be dead in two weeks!” — my mother remembers the consultant saying that.

It’s part of the medical thinking at that time. And one of the great achievements of my father was to shift medical thinking in England and Europe. Because if he’d made a go of it — and he had, he lived a very happy and fulfilling life for 30 years — then lots of other people could do it, too … My father was quite a pragmatic person and he explained to people, it’s not just brilliant for the disabled person, but it’s also much less expensive for the state. It makes total sense for everybody … Medical people are brilliant, and wonderful and amazing, but they like to often control situations.

In a particularly upsetting scene, Robin is rolled through a hospital ward in Germany where the disabled are kept in prison-like iron lungs. Did that visit and the conference for the severely disabled that followed impact the way your father acted going forward?

Yes, he influenced individual disabled people, individual polio sufferers, and the medical establishment, and obviously you can't go through each one in the movie, but that [conference] was a very clear one because it was a room full of doctors, and doctors want the best for their patients, but sometimes they don't get into the minds of the patients.

My father was very good at explaining to people, to doctors. He was a powerful communicator and a very charming man, and he always did it with enormous charm and humour and grace … He was never angry about the situation, because you knew that wouldn't help, he was a really good persuader, and a very good educator.

Do you think it’s important for film to tackle important issues like polio?

I think film is something that is good at taking on stories, and stories about triumph over disaster, which is really what this film is. That is a kind of film that people like, and people feel stronger because of it, they enjoy the process of going on the ups and downs of the ride of the journey. I think film is a very good way to explain and portray different sorts of disability.

How much did the cast learn about polio when you were working on the film?

Our director Andy Serkis knew quite a lot about it because his mother used to work with disabled children when he was growing up, so he came across a lot of disability. He also played a character called Ian Dury in a film called “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.” Ian Dury is an English pop singer who had polio, so Andy knew quite a lot about it.

Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy knew much less, but by the time they finished, there wasn’t anything that either of them didn't know about polio because in the process of learning, getting into the characters for the part, they learned an enormous amount. Andrew particularly met polio victims and disabled people and talked to doctors and read a huge amount and studied my father a lot, so he became very expert on the subject.

Polio is a big campaign point for Global Citizen. We understand that despite it being 99.9% eradicated, its threat continues. But it’s something people, and especially the younger generation, don’t know much about. You experienced firsthand how polio can affect someone’s life, but how might you explain the importance of fighting for its eradication?

I think the first point is that unlike so many diseases, there is a preventative that works and that’s the first important thing. And the second important thing would be [explaining that] the physical ravages of polio can be extraordinarily ruinous and obviously often a lot of the time it kills people, sometimes it leaves them extremely badly disabled and sometimes less badly disabled. But it strikes in a kind of way, the same way that a common cold does, it can come through the air and you suddenly get it. I think it’s a sign of a civilized world that people wouldn't be in danger of getting polio because they would’ve received a vaccine.

To find out more about polio eradication efforts and how you can help, visit endpolio.org .