On a hot January afternoon in 1946, the country doctor hurried from attending a polio case at a home in Cooma to the local hospital to deliver me.
Ten years before the Salk vaccine became available, the doctor brought the poliovirus with him on his fingers. It was a pity that he didn't wash his hands more thoroughly. Ten thoughtless seconds dramatically switched the direction of my future life path to one of slow deteriorating physical disability over 74 years - so far.
Only people over 70 would recall the terror that families felt during the polio epidemics that blighted Australia about every 10 years between 1910 and 1960, before the widespread use of the Salk and Sabin vaccines.
The poliovirus presents like flu, but overnight it can do irreversible damage to the body's nerves, muscles and joints.
The doctor brought the poliovirus with him on his fingers. It was a pity that he didn't wash his hands more thoroughly.
When polio strikes, it kills off many of the nerve connections that run from the brain down the spinal cord to the muscles. The remaining nerves then unevenly pull on the skeleton. Polio will do more damage to either the left or right side and the top half or the bottom half of the body. In my case, it was lower and left.
My worst damage from polio was initially in my left leg and foot, leaving me with a thinner and shorter leg.During the day, to assist with keeping the leg straight, I wore an iron calliper on my left leg until the age of 12.
In my 1950s childhood, hospitals were part of an annual routine for tracking my ongoing disability caused by polio. I was one of the lucky ones because I only went for checkups.
Many years later, I heard shocking stories from fellow polio survivors who had been kept in hospitals for years of ongoing therapy. One device, the notorious Double Thomas Splint (a diagonal cross shape), was designed to keep the child's body limbs immobilised and straight. Medieval torture chambers would have been proud of such an invention.
I was unaware of this suffering as I made my pilgrimage from Eden on the far south coast of NSW to the Camperdown Children's Hospital in Sydney for my annual checkups. The visits through the wards containing dozens of young polio survivors were traumatic. Many were in iron lungs because they would die within 10 minutes if they were taken out of these breathing machines. The 'luckier' ones were immobilised in hospital beds. There has never been any treatment to cure polio or its deadly after-effects.
In the polio children's wards, parental visits were often not encouraged. For these preschool children, it was felt that the departure of the parents after the visits could be 'upsetting'. Sometimes parents could only ever see their young disabled children through glass screens. Even now, PTSD counselling is needed for many of these polio survivors in their later years.
However, there were some useful techniques for stopping the limbs becoming more distorted, but these were uncomfortable, painful and sometimes had long-lasting effects. Even now, at night, I never sleep on my back. Why? Because between the ages of two and seven, I had to sleep in this position with my left leg in a fitted plaster cast. This could be easily slipped on before bed. However, with the weight of the plaster, I couldn't turn on my left or right side.
When I reached my 40s, I developed terrible back trouble. An MRI image revealed that I was developing the Late Effects of Polio (LEoP). In 1994, the scan revealed; spinal scoliosis and stenosis, collapsing disks in the lumbar region, arthritis, and three bone spurs growing into the spinal canal, giving the cord at these points very little wriggle room. Managing this condition properly is vital when your body is deteriorating at between 2 per cent and 6 per cent a year. Where you are on this spectrum depends a lot on how you exercise. For the past 15 years, I have stayed on the 2 per cent side, by doing 30 minutes of gentle hydrotherapy three times a week.
My 74-year journey with polio and its late effects have created some gaps in my life, but we play the cards that we are dealt. I would have loved to have skied like my father, or played golf twice a week into my 70s like my eldest brother, or gone a lot further in championship tennis. Dancing has been another big gap. Pam, my wife of 52 years, is an accomplished dancer. She really drew the short straw with me.
Sometimes, but not often, I reflect on what might have been. I am not a vengeful person, but if I could find that careless doctor who delivered me in 1946 without washing his hands thoroughly, I would sue the bastard.
Newcastle East's Dr John Tierney AM is a former president of Polio Australia and was awarded an AM in 2019 'For significant services to polio survivors'.
October 25 was World Polio Awareness Day.
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