Arun Patel - Untethered ambition and a dedication to help others gave Polio survivor the chance to help over 52,000 children

From contracting Polio at a young age to setting up global charities to support others in similar positions, Arun Patel has been a beacon of hope for so many children.

Arun Patel was born in Mbale, Uganda, in 1954, and contracted polio when he was one years old. He recalls his parents telling him that he had been crying almost nonstop for several days and running a high fever. The doctor who examined him found one of his legs had shrunk and had no strength in it. Arun was diagnosed with poliomyelitis.

Most people in the West today would have little knowledge of this illness. Polio is a debilitating illness that causes paralysis in one or more limbs. Arun says he was “lucky”. Unlike many others at the time, only his right leg was affected, and he was able to move about with minimal difficulty.

Arun says, “My father was determined to see me walk again.” and describes him as a central figure in his journey of living with polio. He remembers his father kept a diary detailing the numerous treatments, herbal remedies, massages, and other interventions he had undertaken to make his son fully mobile once again.

One of the treatments his father had sought was to have Arun fitted with a leg and waist caliper. The caliper consisted of two straight rods of iron which were heavy and did not bend at the knee. Not surprisingly, Arun stopped wearing it after six months.

However, his father was aware that without the use of a caliper Arun risked developing further deformities in his spine and the other leg. So, he consulted an English doctor who had recently arrived in Uganda. Finally, Arun was fitted with a flexible caliper that he was able to wear throughout the day.

Despite the physical challenges, Arun maintained a positive outlook. In his memoirs, Out of My Way, POLIO!: How I Strived Joyfully for More than a Normal Life, he describes his Polio diagnosis as, “The best thing that ever happened to him. I don’t think I lost too much of my childhood, it inspired me to do something more for myself and others.”.

Arun’s unrestrained drive, his fierce determination not to let his disability get in his way, and his family’s unwavering support enabled him to move to England at the age of 17 to pursue a career in accountancy. There he achieved national honors in the accountancy exams which opened many doors. Not only was he able to set up his own accountancy practice but he also learnt how to drive, play golf, and travel the world.

One day in 2002, Arun read an article about an NGO from India that had brought over children with physical disabilities to participate in a sports event in the UK. Arun reached out to them and was invited to visit their place in Rajasthan.

Arun describes how he was overcome with joy during his first visit to the largest school for physically handicapped children in India. “Here I was in the midst of hundreds of children who had disabilities like mine and who probably shared physical and emotional experiences similar to mine. I remember telling myself that I have finally landed in life, this (polio) happened to me for a reason.”

Upon his return to the UK, together with his two brothers, he formed the charity, Polio Children (now Polio and Children in Need Charity). Within just three months of starting the charity, they raised a staggering £150,000 and this past year they passed the £3 million mark. The success of the charity has meant that several schools, hostels, and orphanages have been built. More than 300 students have received scholarships for higher education. In keeping with the charity’s motto of “Giving hope and dignity”, many of these children are now independent members of the mainstream society.

Arun estimates that driven by his late father’s maxim of “Education at any cost” his charities have changed the lives of more than 52,000 children over the past 21 years. He adds, “Each one of us has the potential to change the lives of others. All we have to do is look inwards.”.

In 2022, after hearing about a ‘life-changing’ solution to his progressing physical disability, called the C-Brace, Arun met with Alan Hews at the Dorset Orthopaedic Clinic in Egham, Surrey. Within a few weeks, it greatly increased Arun’s mobility. He walked 600m in the first 2 days, which is more than he would’ve done in a whole month before. He reports that the device has helped him overcome a mental block, which had previously stopped him from going out and being as active. Additionally, he reports that the flexibility of the brace now makes getting in and out of cars and climbing stairs a lot easier. Alan also mentioned that this brace is unique and the first of its kind because unlike other braces it has been used to enhance the capability of the better leg because his other leg(the right one) is totally paralysed with polio.

“The service at Dorset Orthopaedic, and Alan’s commitment has been impressive, I didn’t realise how much care and knowledge would be involved,” said Arun. Thirty years ago, as post-polio syndrome started affecting his good leg, Arun was told by a doctor that it was only a matter of time before he would find himself in a wheelchair. But Arun was not one to give in. He continued his selfless dedication to helping children who lack the support he has had in his life.

Asked what one piece of advice he would like to share, Arun said, “Explore how you can impact the lives of others in selfless ways.”