Emma Eivers has never been stymied by the lingering effects of childhood polio.

The blonde woman looks for a pen inside a box strategically located on the floor, gracefully picks it up and starts writing on a blank page.

“My name is Emma Eivers,” she writes in nice cursive lettering that would make any penmanship teacher proud, even if Emma were holding the pen in her fingers and not two toes of her right foot.

Now 67, Emma Eivers has been paralyzed from her waist up since she was 11. But that has not deterred her from leading an almost normal life: marriage, motherhood, earning a doctorate degree in Latin American literature from USC, and traveling to France, where she enrolled in an advanced French studies program. Or from becoming a certified teacher of citizenship classes, who several days a week welcomes a group of students to her home to help them become citizens. 

For all those years, the constant companion of the Pius X High School and Immaculate Heart College graduate has been a machine that helps her breathe normally due to a lung malfunction caused by polio. (In her youth she would only use the machine in the morning after waking up and before going to bed; the rest of the day her lungs would work almost normally, but recently she has suffered from post-polio syndrome.)

With very light physical activity Eivers tires easily, and must utilize the machine --- which through the years has turned into a small box --- that keeps her breathing. Because of her condition, her Sunday church attendance at St. Athanasius Church in Long Beach has diminished, but every week she is visited by extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist who pray with and for her, and in turn draw strength from her extraordinary faith and determination.

Sudden illness

Infancy and early childhood ran normally for Emma Flores Victoria, born Feb. 22, 1945 in Mexicali, Baja California (Mexico). She was the youngest of two children born to a Sicilian mother, Emma, and German father, Octaviano, who switched his last name (Schmidt) for Flores.

But when a polio epidemic spread throughout the world in the 1960s, preventative vaccines for school-age students did not arrive in time to many countries, especially the poorest. That left many children six and older unprotected --- including Emma, who started showing the disease’s symptoms at age 11 while attending fifth grade.

“I remember I was playing basketball and I started feeling extremely hot and turned pale, yellow,” she recalls.

That night she had a high fever and a strong pain in both arms, shoulders and on the back of her neck. She got up to brush her teeth, which she usually did using a glass of water. This time, the glass was extremely heavy to hold, so heavy that her mother had to help her lift it up.

It was the last time Emma ever moved her arms.

Her dad rushed her to the Sagrado Corazón Hospital in Mexicali, where she was diagnosed with advancing paralysis from the waist up. Her breathing muscles were not functioning. 

She was put inside an iron lung, but no one in the hospital knew how to operate it. Fortunately, her father knew some English and could translate the manual into Spanish for hospital personnel.

Emma remained inside the machine for five months, but it was still very hard for her to swallow. “Every lung movement was very difficult and during those months I never even sneezed; I couldn’t,” she explains.

She had severe polio and local physicians did not know how to properly take care of her, so they sent her to Mexico City’s Children’s Hospital. There, she was told she had been taken out of the iron lung too soon, and was expected to die soon.

Desperate, her father brought her to the United States. She was connected to a portable respirator for the trip and arrived Aug. 27, 1957 at Sister Kenny Hospital in El Monte, where she stayed for nearly four months. Then she was moved to the Children’s Hospital, where slowly she learned English from her contact with nurses and physicians. 

While her mother took care of her older brother, her father traveled every week to see his child, but after several months he could not pay for hospitalization with the $120 a month he earned in his hometown.

Hospital officials reported Emma and her father to Immigration and Naturalization services, but two weeks after no visits from her father, he appeared with legal documents for her and himself. A half-sister of his and her husband, both American citizens, adopted Emma and helped arrange for his documents as well. 

Emma was then transferred to Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, where she remained from Feb. 14, 1958 to Sept. 9, 1963. Gradually, she was weaned from the iron lung, began swallowing and gained weight. But after lying down for so many years, she had developed a severe scoliosis curvature; a successful spinal fusion, however, allowed her to never suffer from back pain again.

Her father reduced his visits to once a month. Emma was more frequently being visited by the candy stripers, a group of teenaged hospital volunteers, most of them Pius X High School students.

The hospital hired a tutor who guided her through school lessons, but her contact with the candy stripers ignited a desire to attend the Catholic school. She had become an excellent student, according to her tutor.

Supported by hospital personnel and the volunteers, she visited the school’s principal, a priest so overtaken by the girl’s positive outlook on life that he allowed her to enroll. Initially, she was driven to school by hospital personnel, then by classmates who transported her back and forth from the hospital.

That was the start of a successful academic path. She graduated in 1963 from Pius X and received a scholarship to enroll at Immaculate Heart College, where several of her close friends were planning to attend. She moved to the dorms where, at least twice a day, her friends took turns to help her connect to the respiratory machine. She even got a day job tutoring children to pay for textbooks.

Emma graduated in 1967 with a major in Spanish and minor in French and philosophy. She moved to Little Flower Missionary House in Lincoln Heights, an elementary school and home for children of drug addicts or jailed parents.

But the environment was not what she expected; “I became depressed and decided to leave.” A friend helped her find and pay for an apartment where she lived briefly, hoping to become a court interpreter, but friends recommended she get a doctorate degree. She enrolled at California State University Los Angeles and on the first day of classes she saw an announcement about a foreign exchange program in Montpellier, France. She applied, was admitted and in October 1968 flew to Paris accompanied by another friend who helped with her breathing machine and luggage.

In 1969 she graduated in advanced French studies, but before coming back home, she traveled through France, Spain and Italy, helped by friends she met there, with whom she still keeps in contact. She finished her master’s degree in Latin America literature and then earned a doctorate degree in the same field at USC, where she taught in the early 1970s.

In the mid-70s she married John Eivers (now deceased), a counselor on health adjustment at a hospital where she was treated. They had two children: Sasha, a St. Anthony High School graduate (now with two children of her own), and Jonathan. 

Then she went to teach to other colleges and took ESL and citizenship classes to be able to teach from home.

‘In gratitude’

Throughout her life Emma has been a devoted Catholic, for many years doing her best to attend daily Mass. At one time, she even thought of becoming a cloistered nun, “in gratitude to God for the love He had shown to me.” That was in 1968, while at Cal State Los Angeles, when she briefly joined the Congregation of Jesus Crucified in Devon, Pennsylvania, a French-based order that specializes in accepting disabled women.

During a visit by the order’s Mother General, she was told to complete her education, and to “know the world.” And, if she still wanted to become a nun, she would be welcomed. That was the year she left for France, and her life went another direction.

But her faith has remained strong, as suggested in her unpublished autobiography “Our Souls.” Typed entirely with her toes during more than 100 hours, the book is a remembrance of important episodes of her life, including a couple of “religious experiences” that deepened her faith.

 “Thank you, Holy Spirit,” she wrote, “for all your love, for all your strength, power and enlightenment.”

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