Surviving polio's devastation


Polio affected all walks of life and separated children from their families for years. Olivia Kelleherreports on a new book which aims to celebrate and support polio's survivors

Polio affected thousands of people in Ireland during the 1940s and 1950s, and in 1956 an epidemic of the condition broke out in Cork. During a four-month period in 1956 over 550 children in the Cork area were hospitalised after they contracted polio.

Many of these cases occurred in very stressful times, such as during or soon after the second World War which were extremely tough periods even without a debilitating disease.

Children as young as two and three who contracted polio often had to leave their family homes to access treatment in Dublin or elsewhere. Parents didn't see their affected children for months and years at a time. In their absence, siblings were born, grandparents died and the general family dynamic changed.

Dublin woman Nuala Harnett, editor of Polio and us - Personal stories of polio survivors in Ireland, contracted the condition when she was just two and a half. Luckily, she was not confined to a treatment centre, but instead was in and out of hospital for four years.

Polio was most prevalent in the 0-5 age group. Harnett says one of the saddest aspects of the major outbreaks in Ireland was that children had to be treated in hospital for lengthy periods and were totally isolated from their families and friends.

"These children were totally out of normal family life. Their brothers and sisters couldn't visit. They could be in an institution for up to three years. There was no art, music or reading. The aim was to keep kids fed and clothed. There were no luxuries of any kind. The whole emphasis was on making sure the kids lived," she says.

Polio is very indiscriminate in the way in which it attacks.

Some people are affected in one part of the body, then fully recover. Other people's entire bodies are affected and they recover only partially in the upper half, leaving them in wheelchairs.

According to international research, some 40-60 per cent of polio survivors develop the debilitating neurological condition of post-polio syndrome 20-40 years after surviving the initial epidemic.

Finbarr O'Brien (83) from Tower near Blarney, Co Cork was three years old when polio struck him. His first childhood memory is of being a patient in the South Infirmary Hospital in Cork after he had suffered a severe bout of polio in his left leg.

There was no treatment at the time for his condition and he was sent home from hospital after a month.

"I spent a couple of months in the South Infirmary. One memory I do have is of being in the women's ward because there wasn't room anywhere else. They had no treatment for us really. The physio used to come around with a battery-operated vibrator."

O'Brien doesn't recall much about the next few years except that the normal feeling in his leg was gone and he couldn't walk on it. At some stage he was introduced to a wooden crutch, the top section of which he held under his arm by his shoulder.

In 1931 when he was seven years old, O'Brien began attending national school in Blarney. He says in hindsight he realises how lucky he was to attend school as a public bus service began in the area only a year earlier. Without the bus service and the assistance of his eldest sister, Maura, who taught him to read and write he might never have received formal education.

"I was so lucky because Blarney school was excellent. My eldest sister Maura, who died when she was 25, also helped me so much with reading and writing.

"Because of the good work done by my sister in teaching me, instead of going into junior infants I was put into first class during my first week at school."

Two of O'Brien's brothers worked in Dublin in the Civil Service. His brother, Dermot, learned of the Children's Orthopaedic Hospital and spoke to a surgeon about his brother's disability. In 1937 O'Brien travelled to Dublin and had surgery on his leg. After a second surgery he was measured for a boot with a cork elevation and a steel fitment from hip to ankle called a "walking calliper".

O'Brien says he had the same splint and boot for about 40 years until doctors pleaded with him to get a new one.

He says if he had not suffered his disability he would probably have gone on to do his Leaving Certificate and join the Civil Service like his brothers. However, in 1940 he sat the Intermediate Certificate and after the summer holiday he moved to the School of Commerce in Cork.

He began work with a small audit and accountancy firm and eventually moved on to four different office jobs over a 28-year period. He spent the happiest years of his working life prior to his retirement in 1990 managing a busy office for a family friend and neighbour. Luckily, he never developed symptoms of post-polio syndrome.

O'Brien is the last surviving member of his family and is now a father of five. He and his wife, May, are set to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at the end of July. O'Brien says for polio survivors it is all about overcoming adversity and living your life to the full.

"I am the last of 11 in our family. I had a very active life really, all things considering. I never missed work. I had a big raised boot but that never held me back. Actually, I had that splint and boot for about 40 years until doctors told me to get a new one! Post-polio people get on with life at their own pace. We have had many happy days."

Polio and us is being published for distribution free within the polio survivor community. It contains personal anecdotes relating each writer's individual experience of polio. It is hoped that sharing the stories with others will lead to increasing peer support within the survivor community and greater understanding and participation within the wider community.