GAINES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The work of a former president ultimately saved the life of a West Michigan resident in his battle with cancer.
Steve Poll was digging into his past when he found out a device that saved his life wouldn’t have been in Grand Rapids if it weren’t for the work of former President Jimmy Carter when he was in the U.S. Navy.
“President Carter was involved in something that dramatically affected my life and a lot of other people in West Michigan,” said Poll.
Poll and his wife, Beth, spend a lot of time researching their family’s past and documenting what they find so their family will have it after they’re gone.
“The world is what it is and there’s people who made the world what it is,” Poll said. “There’s people who have done good in the world and to pass that heritage on to people and the knowledge of what people have done like that, I think it’s important to recognize them.”
Poll found a lot of people who helped save his life he’d like to thank and recognize.
Shortly after his birth in 1960, doctors found a Wilms tumor inside his body.
“My left kidney was basically pretty much a large incapsulated tumor that if they disturbed it, it would break open, it would metastasize,” said Poll.
His parents were told Poll had three days to live.
“They talked about this unit, cobalt unit that they had, and they’d never used it on an infant locally. They may have somewhere else but not locally,” said Poll.
Dr. Spencer Kirkland, a radiation oncologist with Corewell Health, said he’s familiar with the treatment Poll had, “although things have changed quite significantly … since 1960.”
“Cobalt is a radioactive isotope, and it emits radiation. It slowly decays over time,” Kirkland said.
Back in 1960, Cobalt was key to saving Poll’s life. One of the people responsible for it being in Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids was future President Jimmy Carter.
During World War II, there was a nuclear reactor in Canada. There was an accident and it was damaged. The Navy sent a team — including Carter — to get the reactor stabilized and repaired.
“President Carter and the team got that going just in time to get that material ready to be put in that treatment machine in Grand Rapids. So a lot of people in West Michigan benefitted from that in the next few years, which would not have been able to had they not got that running,” said Poll.
That treatment saved Poll’s life.
The machine that was housed deep below Butterworth Hospital hasn’t been in used in decades. Dr. Kirkland said the technology is still used in developing countries.
“It’s still a very effective treatment that’s used worldwide but modern radiation treatment in the United States now is done with a different source or producer of radiation treatment,” said Kirkland.
Wanting to thank those who played a role in saving his life all those years ago, Poll set out to find anyone from that mission who might still be alive.
“Carter was the oldest living person — last summer in 2022 — that I had identified,” he said.
Poll reached out to the former president’s people with the goal of simply sending a one-page letter of thanks.
“This person said to me, ‘Send it to the correspondence department and we will get it to him.’ She made it sound like it was very important that he got that,” said Poll.
Several weeks later, Poll received something special in the mail: A card from the former president with a presidential seal.
“Thank you for your recent message. Your kind words and support mean a great deal to me,” the card, signed by Jimmy Carter, says.
It’s a special piece of Poll’s history he can pass down to his grandkids.
“There’s a lot of other people involved in that reactor in Canada, getting it going. President Carter just gets to be kind of the symbol of it,” said Poll.