Someone You Should Know: Putting importance of empathy on paper

Brookings man who survived polio as a toddler publishes children's book
A Brookings man who survived polio as a toddler has published a children's book that highlights the importance of empathy.
Published: Jul. 22, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
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BROOKINGS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A happy childhood is one that often includes a family pet. For one South Dakota man, his dog was so much more than a pet, he was his best friend. He writes about that in his new children's book, a story that will hopefully teach an important lesson about embracing others who are a little different.

“So a lot of times, honestly, he, really felt like he was my only friend,” says Mark Sternhagen of Brookings.

Mark’s life changed just a year and a half after it began.

“I had polio when I was 18 months old. I missed out on the vaccine because when it was available, I happened to be running a temperature and I couldn’t be vaccinated.”

The disease resulted in physical disabilities that made him different. While other kids could walk normally, run and ride their bikes, Mark had to rely on a leg brace and crutches to get around and often had to miss out on the fun other kids were having. But, he wasn’t alone, he had his best friend.

“Sandy was kind of different. Very often, he would be the only one who was there with me,” Mark says.

Sandy was his family’s dog. Mark recently published a children’s book called “Sandy & Me.”

“Sandy & Me is about my young childhood with polio in Scotland, South Dakota, and my dog, cocker spaniel dog Sandy and some of our adventures and trials and tribulations together.”

He specifically wanted the book to be for kids.

“I had really seen empathy kind of losing its place in our world. In a way that kind of bothers me, because I see people who don’t seem to feel things or care about things unless it happens to them. And I really feel children are a key to that and to making a difference there. And I could just see the story in my head and all that, but I have really no ability to draw. I can visualize it well, but I can’t draw at all. And it isn’t really necessarily a physical thing, I can still write, so I could do it, but I just can’t do it,” Mark explains.

Lacking the artistic ability to illustrate the book, he, fortunately, found some unexpected help and managed to put it all together during the pandemic.

“My niece had posted a picture that her daughter had drawn, and I just kind of on a whim contacted, asked her if her daughter Kylie would be interested in drawing some pictures for a book that I had in my mind. I really felt it was the proper time, one with the whole pandemic going on and I knew she was in the shelter-at-home thing because she’s a high school student in Sioux Falls and I knew she’d be cooped up maybe looking for something to do.”

Mark says he’s really happy with how the book and pictures turned out. He wants others to gain a lot from the story.

“I hope that they’ll find it somewhat entertaining and have a smile here and there and maybe have a tear, I don’t know. I want them to think, think about things, think about others. I hope it makes children ask questions, ask their parents ‘Why did this little boy have to walk on crutches?’ I really hope that it’ll start a conversation and that they’ll think about others and maybe feel for others.”

For more information on how to order a copy of the book, go to

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