“The city streets were deserted at 11:30 p.m. It was a balmy spring night in 1945 when my husband, Larry, and I set out for a walk after work [at the New Haven Hospital]. Larry was a surgical intern and I was a student nurse and I had just come off duty on the evening shift.”
So begins Called to Rise: A Journey Through Disability, Madeleine Crowley’s memoir about a life changed by polio. A little more than three years after this spring stroll, she lay gravely ill in the hospital where she had worked, fearing for her life and for the future of her husband, a 1944 graduate of the School of Medicine, and their two-year-old son. In the months and years that followed her hospitalization on Thanksgiving Day 1948, Crowley overcame most of the obstacles presented by the disease. She decided to write the book, published last May by Western Book/Journal Press in Reno, Nev., to inspire others with disabilities.
Lawrence and Madeleine Crowley met as students on the medical ward on Fitkin 1 during the war years. In mid-November 1948, their only child, Lawrence Jr., became infected with the polio virus but recovered fully. Madeleine’s case was much more serious. After a week of intermittent consciousness, she awoke to discover that she had lost the use of her arms and legs. Despite several weeks of difficult breathing, she managed to avoid the iron lung, and early the next year began rehabilitation in Warm Springs, Ga., in a hospital designed by its most famous patient, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The book’s title refers to a line in the first stanza of an Emily Dickinson poem: “We never know how high we are/Till we are called to rise;/And then, if we are true to plan,/Our statures touch the skies.” During that balmy spring walk in 1945, Madeleine Crowley told her husband that she wanted to live life to the fullest, and it was a promise that she kept. She regained partial use of her limbs and learned to walk on crutches before post-polio syndrome required her to use a wheelchair years later. She gave birth to two more children, Suzanne and Stephen, and ran the household as the family moved first to California, then Wisconsin. When the children grew up and left home, she went back to work, first as a hospital volunteer, then as a career counselor.
From time to time, she said in a phone interview from her home in Cupertino, Calif., “I would feel a flood of sadness come over me and I’d wish life had been different. But there were so many things I wanted to do and the world was out there waiting. I’d say, ‘Oh the heck with it. I’m not going to let it stop me.’ ”
The same was true for her husband, who thrived despite the initial interruption in his career as an academic surgeon. Lawrence Crowley, M.D. ’44, HS ’51, scrambled to find a fellowship at Emory while Madeleine was in Warm Springs, then returned to Yale for two years to serve on the faculty. In 1953, the harsh New England winters drove the family to the easier climate and lifestyle of California, and Lawrence briefly left academic medicine for private practice in Los Angeles. Before long he joined the faculty at Stanford, rising to become dean of the medical school and vice president of the university. From 1974 to 1978, he served as dean of the University of Wisconsin Medical School.
“It turned out to be a very wise move,” Lawrence Crowley said of the difficult decision to leave New Haven. “If things had been different, I might well have stayed at Yale and still be there today. But Madeleine was much more independent in California. And we had a great time.”