Councilman: Hagerstown native N. Linn Hendershot came away from his bout with pneumonia with a desire to help the disabled and a renewed love of his hometown.

By Jeff Barker
Monday, September 15, 2003

HAGERSTOWN — City Councilman N. Linn Hendershot’s second life began in the same place as his first, right here in this Western Maryland community where he is a disability rights advocate, unabashed Hagerstown booster and the state’s first elected official dependent on a ventilator to breathe.

In his mind, Hendershot, 58, has had two distinctly different existences.

The first began with his birth here and the childhood polio that left him using crutches. He followed his love of sports to Atlanta, where he worked in the late 1960s in public relations for the National Football League’s Falcons under Coach Norm Van Brocklin.

He did communications work for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NASCAR, and helped the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games ensure that venues were fully accessible.

Then he got sick again — so seriously ill with bronchial pneumonia in 1997 that he was hospitalized for 17 months and placed on a ventilator, which he has used since. He emerged from his illness with a new sense of urgency and purpose. “When you’re on a ventilator, long-term planning means next Friday,” he says.

In 2001, he ran for the Hagerstown City Council and won. Now, he attends council meetings every week, does public relations for a hospital in which he was once a long-term patient and serves on numerous boards of civic and charitable groups. He relies on a powered wheelchair to get around.

A hose dangling from his neck keeps his lungs filled with air. His condition barely affects his speech — he talks nonstop about his pet causes. The walls of his office are filled with photos of his earlier life, including shots of him at stadiums and with sports heroes.

“I feel like my life is in extra innings,” he says.

He says his life’s second phase — “a second chance,” he calls it — began during his recovery from the pneumonia in 1997 that left him unable to breathe on his own. His lungs had been weakened by post-polio syndrome, and he was unable to speak for several months.

Hendershot, who is divorced, lived in Atlanta at the time but was soon transferred to the Western Maryland Hospital Center to be near his mother, sister and brother. His prognosis was uncertain. “They kept trying to encourage me to sit up, but I would panic. If I would sit up at over 65 degrees for more than 20 minutes, I would get extremely short of breath. And I was scared of the machines,” he says.

A new attitude

He had worn back braces for polio-induced scoliosis as a child, and his back continued to bother him when he did sit up. But then he started to get better. He says it wasn’t so much his body recovering as his attitude.

Hendershot had always been enamored of computers, and his family won permission from the hospital to install one in the medical library for his use. “I went to the director and said, ‘If he’s going to get well, we need to get his mind off how much he’s hurting,'” says his sister, Marion Hardin, 64. “Other patients saw him working on the computer and stopped by and asked him about it. This was incentive for him to get up every day.” What made the difference, Hendershot says, was that he went from feeling useless to feeling needed.

By the time he was discharged in 1998, he had helped establish a computer lab for patients’ use.

Many of those Hendershot assisted in the lab were spinal cord patients. One, David Clift, who was paralyzed in a diving accident as a teen, was hospitalized here for 34 years before being released in March to live on his own in Hagerstown. “He was truly institutionalized until that computer lab,” Hendershot says. “He discovered a whole new world.”

Clift says Hendershot played a critical role in his independence. “He showed me [how] to use the mouse and the Internet so I can talk to people and meet people,” Clift says.

Hendershot was hired by the hospital in 1998.

Running for council, he says, was a natural extension of working with patients. He believes he can use politics to help people with disabilities better function in society’s mainstream. He has been working with state legislators on a measure to provide tax credits for people who build homes with wider corridors and other specifications that make them accessible to the disabled.

But he didn’t want to be a single-issue candidate. He jokes about his disability. He says his medical condition meant that “you don’t have to worry about term limits with me.” Of his ventilator, he says, “Somebody’s got to represent the heavy breathers.”

Hometown boy

He stresses his love for Hagerstown and his vision for the city’s growth. He is one of the city’s most ardent advocates, often ending a conversation with a visitor by initiating a tour of the city or offering, “Let me get back to why I’m so excited about Hagerstown.”

He says the city, with its proximity to Civil War battlefields and its historic buildings — such as the sublime, 88-year-old Maryland Theater — isn’t properly appreciated by the rest of the state. “I think the perception is of Hagerstown as Western Maryland, way out there in the mountains. But we’re not,” he says.

He joined three other Democrats and one Republican when he won election to the council two years ago.

Now he says he’ll even consider running for Congress, if only to draw attention to his pet issues: making sure seniors and the disabled have adequate health care and accessible housing. His health could be an issue, though. Even with the ventilator, he is hospitalized periodically to clear his airways.

His schedule is already demanding.

He is chairman of a 16-year-old charitable group called MIHI — “Many Individuals Helping Individuals” — supporting recreational, housing and educational projects for the disabled. The organization, along with Habitat for Humanity and a local Episcopal church, broke ground in July on a home for a local woman born with spina bifida who gets around on an electric scooter. The home is of universal design, which means it doesn’t hinder those with mobility or strength limitations.

It’s projects like these that he says have made the past five years the best of his life.

“I’ve done a thousand times more since I’ve been sick than when I was well,” he says.

©2003, The Baltimore Sun