He contracted it as a child, and is now speaking out
By JOEL JACOBSON Bright Spot
RAMESH FERRIS is within a couple of weeks of completing one huge goal.
On Oct. 1, in Cape Spear, N.L., the Whitehorse resident and polio survivor will finish a cross-Canada journey of 7,200 kilometres on a handcycle to raise funds for the eradication of polio.
Ramesh, 28, has no use of his legs. He wears a brace from high on his right thigh to the tip of his toes. He had to wear a left leg brace until he was 10. Polio also affected Ramesh’s lungs; he battled pneumonia nine times before his 11th birthday.
He covers an average of 90 kilometres a day in his Cycle To Walk, which started in Victoria on April 12, the anniversary of the 1955 release of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. Using a 27-speed handcycle with three wheels and a specialized seat cushion, Ramesh says he travels 27 kilometres per hour on flat stretches, three uphill and an amazing 74 km/h downhill, mostly on secondary highways.
Born in southern India, Ramesh contracted polio when he was six months old.
"I got the disease 25 years after the world had prevention," he says, sitting in a Dartmouth coffee shop during a brief respite. "My mother didn’t have access to the rehabilitation supports I needed so she placed me in a Canadian-founded orphanage to have a better chance to live."
Within a year, he was adopted by Ron Ferris, then Anglican bishop of the Yukon, and his wife, Jan.
"I had access to the Canadian health-care system and by age three, I was able to walk with braces and crutches because of surgery and rehabilitation support," says Ramesh.
His determination to create awareness and raise funds for the drive to eradicate polio worldwide was sparked in 2002, when he returned to India for a visit.
"I met my birth mother for the first time, and it was incredible and emotional to meet this woman who gave me the chance to live."
What also touched Ramesh was the sight of people stricken with polio crawling on the ground, without the help of supportive aids, using pieces of used tires to protect their knees.
Ramesh is a social worker. And because he lives it every day, he has always been particularly compassionate to people with disabilities. But seeing this blew him away.
"That’s when my motivation to help really started," he says. "We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to eradicate polio, working in partnership with Rotary International and governments around the world to ensure every person is vaccinated against it. We’re very close."
He is concerned, however, that 11 per cent of Canadians, or 3.4 million people, have not been immunized against polio. According to the World Health Organization, this puts Canada at a high risk for a return of the virus.
"We’re complacent here. The disease returned to Australia in 2007 for the first time in decades, and polio remains endemic in four countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria. It can spread again. We are definitely unaware of its effects because Canada has been relatively polio-free for decades, even though there are people like me living with the results of it."
He says Canada has committed millions of dollars to the eradication program and, since 1985, Rotary clubs worldwide have raised over US$650 million allowing two billion children to be vaccinated.
Ramesh has the upper body of an athlete. He has represented the Yukon nationally through the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball Association, Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association, the Esteem Team Association, the Canadian Rural Youth Network and the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability.
He helped bring wheelchair basketball, handcycling, and inclusive dance to the Yukon’s sports community. He’s taught wheelchair basketball to high school students, creating better understanding and respect for individuals with long-term mobility loss.
On his Cycle To Walk ( www.cycletowalk.com), Ramesh is travelling with Rotarian volunteer Doug Ayers, and Doug’s wife, Bertha, also from Whitehorse. The couple drive an SUV that hauls a trailer and a seven-metre motorhome. Recent communications graduate Chris Madden of Winnipeg contacts community groups and arranges school and hospital visits and appointments with federal and provincial government leaders.
"Ramesh is getting stronger in his determination and commitment to finish this," says Doug, who records courtroom testimony. "He’s created awareness of polio and raised $300,000 toward a goal of $1 million."
Ramesh admits he may not hit that goal. He is aware there are hundreds people making cross-Canada treks to raise money and awareness of various causes.
"I’m just one who says if we can pool our resources for this, we can prevent 10 million children being paralyzed for the next 40 years. Polio vaccines have been available for 53 years, yet the disease continues to paralyze children needlessly to this day.
"I’d be very proud for every Canadian to say, ‘I had a part in eradicating polio.’ It’s a disease passed from person to person. If everyone is immunized against it, it can’t be passed anymore."