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Olympia Dukakis: Health Activist

From caring for a mother diagnosed with Alzheimer's to working with polio patients, the award-winning actress takes her own health and the health of others seriously.


You decided to be a physical therapist after college. Why?

I wanted to go back to school, and it was the best way I knew to make money given the kind of studying I liked. I liked the sciences. So I went out and did four polio epidemics. I was in Marmet, W.Va. I was down in Dallas, Texas. I was up in Duluth, Minn. And then the worst one was in Boston in 1955.

What stuck with you most from that period, working with polio victims?

How little I really knew about life. It really hit me. I'd never seen such suffering. And the parents, I had never seen people in such despair, so broken.

Are there any moments that stand out in your mind?

There was a pregnant woman who gave birth on a respirator in Duluth. There was a little boy, Daniel, the first patient I had that died in Marmet, W.Va. I walked into the room and his father, this great big mountain man, was sobbing. And his mother, this little thin woman, was on her knees, at the window, praying.

Back to your own life, what is the best health advice anyone has ever given you?

To drink a lot of water, at least six to eight glasses a day. I think the body needs it. Sometimes I ask myself, Did I drink enough water? If not, things start happening. Our bowels are not right; my skin is this. I'm not sleeping well. And I just go back and make sure I drink the water, and I even myself out again.

What is your best health habit? Your worst?

I make sure I get exercise. I do yoga and Pilates and I walk. My worst is, I stay up too late. I need to make sure I get eight hours of sleep every day.

How did having children and being a parent change you?

I'm not as self-centered. I'm more understanding of what other people go through. It's changed me from being an idealist to a realist. I don't believe in these idealized versions of family.

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