My life with polio by Ann Jordan

Hello everyone – Brett thought you might be interested in my experience of Polio in the 1940’s. So here goes…..

There was no epidemic in South Australia when I contracted Polio early in 1944 but it was one of those infectious diseases that was always around. I remember they put a block of camphor in a little bag that was hung around the neck in the hope that it would ward off polio. Not much use in my case!

I was six years old and had just started year 2 at the Prospect Infants School.  My mother had been in hospital being treated for tuberculosis and was at home on remission. My father was caught up in World War 2 and was serving in the Pacific. Apparently I began to stumble and fall over and had difficulty playing at school so my mother took me to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital on three occasions before finally a Dr. Jolly diagnosed polio which we called infantile paralysis in those days. I was immediately admitted into their special ward for infectious kids and spent some weeks there while the illness took its time to render me paralysed in both legs. It was a scary time. There was very limited visiting time in hospitals in those days and of course, my mother as a TB sufferer was not allowed in. I felt abandoned.

The next stage of my life with polio happened at the Somerton Crippled Children’s Home where I was transported as soon as the critical stage of the illness passed and rehabilitation could commence. The home was a big old two story house on the seafront at Somerton. It no longer exists – sometime in the last few decades it has been torn down for re-development.

It is hard to remember how many children there were living at Somerton during the two years that I was there – perhaps about 50. For what seemed a long time I couldn’t walk and was in a ward with others who were bedridden. Later on, I remember being in a room with older children, many of whom were in wheelchairs and callipers. I was in callipers too but could get around. It is all a bit of a blur as the mind has a way of blocking out some of the memories that are too painful or unpleasant. It wasn’t that it was an awful place – it wasn’t, and I have the impression that the staff were good and kind people, but we were all orphans in a strange land with a strange illness that no-one fully understood and we didn’t understand what was happening to us.

Having said that I believe I had excellent treatment of the kind I have read that Sister Kenny developed. The physiotherapist was a Miss Edwards and she was unfailingly patient in exercising my useless legs when I couldn’t. I remember we spent a lot of time in the sea even in the cold weather and playing in the sand. The other therapy which proved useful in strengthening my arms and legs was the “jungle jim” where we swung on bars – the movement along the bars had the effect of making the legs move too.

I missed a year of schooling when I was having intensive treatment and couldn’t walk. The following year, 1945, I was able to get about sufficiently to attend school which was held at the home and was able to complete year two.

There were two really awful things that happened to me at Somerton that I do remember – one was contracting chicken pox and being put in isolation ward for the duration. I learnt to enjoy my own company and escape into books during those weeks which were very lonely but the staff were frightened of having an epidemic on their hands. The other awful thing was getting head lice and having my hair shaved off.  What a humiliation that was. However, this experience stood me in good stead in later years when I was teased for not being able to run or play sport. That sort of teasing which I suppose we would call bullying nowadays, was nothing compared to having a shaven head in a school room full of kids who delighted in “taking the mickey” out of one another!

So there were valuable life lessons learnt at Somerton.  I learnt to stick up for myself and despise bullies. The bullies at Somerton were not the staff but a couple of older children who remained paralysed and careered around in their wheelchairs beating us smaller ones with their sticks! Can you believe it – well it happened to me.

My father came home from the war early in 1946 and I went home. My mother was still ill but living at home with us. My poor Dad coming home to two wounded women after all he had been through! I was walking and getting stronger all the time. I started back at the local school in year three and two or three times a week took the tram into the Adelaide Children’s Hospital for physiotherapy.

That wasn’t the end of my polio story. I had made a recovery and could walk again but my right leg was still weak. Despite this I begged my father to buy me a bike so I could join in the rides with the other kids. One afternoon after school about three years later we kids were having a race down the back lane when I fell off my bike, dislocating my hip. This led to another year of treatment – several weeks in traction, followed by two operations and several months of crutches. This was early surgery and no-one knew whether it would be successful. But again I was lucky. I learnt to walk again, albeit that I had a twisted right leg that was even weaker than before and a pronounced limp. There was an upside to this latest disaster which I didn’t realise until much later in life. Because of this injury I was never able to play sport or engage in any strenuous exercise and I believe this saved my weakened polio legs from further stress. So in old age I have more strength in my legs than might have been the case had I been able to be more active.

Years ago those of us who were fortunate to walk again following paralysis, thought we were cured. Now we know that we were in remission and decades later are finding that our good muscles have been overused and are weakening again. Sadly, some of us are in wheelchairs and have had to use callipers and sticks again. I was fortunate to have excellent treatment at Somerton from dedicated staff and still have the use of my legs albeit that they are not as strong as I would like. Among the staff I remember Sister Fisher, who at the time often seemed rather cross. Looking back she had her hands full with trying to keep discipline. Even though we kids were disabled we were often naughty and disobedient. I particularly remember Matron Langdon who seemed to understand us so well. She had a sister who used to visit us from time to time who was also a polio victim. Between them they arranged a number of treats for us kids that have left happy memories of kindness and friendship.

As the years passed I never thought that much about polio until about 20 years ago when I started to notice some extra weakness in my legs. I had been cured (I thought) and although I suffered a residual weakness had been able to live a more or less normal life. One day I heard a programme on Radio National about the late effects of polio and realised that this was happening to me!

I made an attempt to access my patient records from the time in the ACH and Somerton to get a clearer picture of what did happen to me all those years ago. I was told that all records had long been destroyed. At a time when I was coming to grips with the return of that scary illness, I thought this was disgraceful when I was still alive and needed to know. I felt that those records could have put some shape into the past and helped me cope with my future  which was looking scary and uncertain. However, about that time I was fortunate to discover Polio SA. Through the advice in the Polio Newsletter and the friends that I have made in the organisation, I have learnt to manage my condition and not to fear the future. I hope to keep on my feet as long as my heart keeps beating.

Thank you to all who have contributed to my wellbeing, including Dr. Nigel Qadros, our phsyios Lee and Margo, and especially the gang at the pool on Tuesday mornings. What a good time we have together!

Ann Jordan.