It must have been the beginning of 1952. I was 11. The old man, Alan and myself walked a small mob of sheep down the road for about six miles to an outlying paddock. It was hot and at every creek we slopped in the water, filled
our hats with the stuff and tipped them over our heads, relishing the coolness as our clothes dried. Polio is a water borne disease. Within a week I was not well. I woke up with a stiff neck and could not bend it forward, feeling the strange
pull all the way down my back. I don’t remember more than that but presumably there were other symptoms. Alan’s mother drove me to the family doctor, a huge old ex army medico who, on the few occasions I had had the misfortune to
visit him, filled me with terror. This time was no exception. As I said, he was huge, with big, thick features and massive hands which, as I remember, were surprisingly gentle and his voice quite soft. That, however, did nothing to allay
my terror. He said he thought it was polio.
Known at the time as Infantile Paralysis because of the tender age of most of its victims, Polio was the scourge of the country at the time. People were so afraid and when the doctor
suggested that Alan’s mother take me home for the weekend and bring me back on Monday, she was petrified, not for herself but for the four children she had at home. However, she took me home to complete isolation except for my Dad who made up a
small bed in his room where I stayed for the next couple of days. He brought my meals and I saw no one else. At that stage no one knew how the disease was transmitted and every precaution was taken not to infect anyone else.
the Monday, as I was still not paralysed, the doctor decided that I had rheumatic fever and admitted me to the small hospital which served the town. Paralysis came later but no one seemed to notice that I could not walk for a few weeks and so the diagnosis
was never changed. I didn’t know my legs were paralysed. In my young brain I imagined that if you were paralysed you were stiff. I wasn’t stiff, my legs just wouldn’t move.
My eldet sister was getting
married and a blue georgette dress was bought for me to wear together with a pair of black patent leather shoes. The dress hung on the wall of my ward with the shoes underneath. The wedding took place in another town. Cars were not that readily
available in small country towns so transport wasn’t as it is today so I didn’t see the bride at all. I don’t remember anything about the day or anything else about the wedding except the blue dress which I didn’t ever wear,
then or at any time. Probably learning how to knit gloves - four needles to do the fingers - was an all-consuming occupation at the time.
There was a lady sharing my ward who taught me. It took much concentration but I think
I ended up with a pair of yellow angora gloves (or was it only one glove?). It is tricky doing the fingers.
Time went on and eventually I could get out of bed and take a few steps, going a bit further each day - to the toilet,
along the corridor, up a slight incline to another ward where a friend of the family was spending the last days of her life. To begin with that incline was an insurmountable mountain, It took so much effort and time but time was what I had plenty of,
along with single minded concentration, pulling myself up along the railing with my arms, taking one feeble step at a time. Eventually I was allowed to go home.
I stayed with my eldest sister for a while, not returning to boarding
school for a few months. She would lift me on to a beautiful, gentle horse which she owned and I would go riding with a couple of young friends of hers, all the while holding onto the pommel of the saddle with my hands as my legs were almost useless.
Luckily I had been a good rider before all this happened and was never afraid. The horse was brilliant. She knew I was not right. I fell off at the drop of a hat and she would stop and wait for someone to hoist me up again. I fell like a
sack of potatoes so didn’t really get hurt.
About 18 months later when the evidence of a scoliosis appeared on my back, Dad took me to a doctor practising in another town where we lived at the time and he asked “When did she
have polio?” Dad said “She hasn’t ever had polio.” He said “Of course she’s had polio, it’s obvious.”
Now, when I look back, this was the first time something dreadful had happened
to me and I was completely unaware that I had been truly lucky to have been so lightly touched by it. Polio had killed and crippled thousands of children and some adults for years and it had treated me so lightly.
On 14 January
1954 my family was involved in a head on car crash which killed my eldest sister’s husband. The big, heavy old ute was pushed up and across so that it was sideways on the road and then just fell over, down hill onto its side. Unfortunately,
he was thrown out and was trapped under the rear part of it. I was partly thrown out and ended up on the bitumin but with my right leg caught under the cabin. It is amazing what strength people have when they are called upon in a critical situation to
do something that would be impossible at any other time. My sister, together with the driver of our ute physically lifted it off her husband and me so they could drag him free. I scrambled out myself.
We were on the road two
hours before ambulances came to ferry us to hospital and all the while my brother in law was drowning in his own blood from a crushed chest.
Same town as before, same hospital, same ex army doctor. He sewed up a deep cut on my inner
thigh. At the time ,I have no doubt he thought he was doing the right thing but in hindsight it was discovered that this should have been allowed to drain. Within a few days my leg was swelling, turning black with gas gangrene, the flesh rotting
and falling away at the slightest touch, the stink horrendous. Finally, transferring me to a much larger regional hospital in a semi delerious state, I was treated by another ex army doctor but as luck would have it, one who had had a great deal
to do with wounded soldiers suffering from gas gangrene. He saved not only my leg but my life.
This was the second time I had been lucky and again, I was quite unaware. Most of these things are only realised when viewed
in hindsight where all becomes clear. What do they say? You live your life forward but you understand it backward.
Life went on and I was pretty happy most of the time. I went back to boarding school for a term or so but
after the accident, having missed even more school, I went to a co-ed high school in a bigger town and carried on with all the things that everyone else did. I couldn’t run, that was all but I rode my bike the four miles to school most days, just
caught the bus if it was really wet. I rode horses, swam in the river and with the school in the town pool. The scarring and deformity didn’t worry me particularly. It was only when I had to visit doctors that I was surly and truculent,
angry and introverted. I hated them all with a vengeance even while knowing that they were trying to help me. I had the attitude “There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need or want your help.” Why was I like
that? Looking back I have tried to remember why I felt like that and can only think that it was only when I was attending doctors and physios it became obvious that I wasn’t perfect, that I was ugly and scarred and deformed and that, in turn, brought
home to me a sort of grieving which I can see now was probably a fairly natural reaction by my round about seventeen year old self. As I write this I find myself shedding a tear, not for how I am now but for that seventeen year old self, grappling with
the problem of life. It is strange to go back there.
For about six months I was living with family on the outskirts of Sydney and visiting Sydney Hospital once a week while the people there were trying to fit me with a brace which
was supposed to help straighten my back. It took a few months and this creature that was me would arrive each week to be fitted and pulled and pushed and strung up by the neck with my toes just touching the ground so my back was as straight as it could
get, then covered with plaster of paris so they could mould the awful thing to fit and what not. One day I was sitting on my own, waiting for my turn to go in, morosely watching other patients, the black mood swirling all about me, hating everyone.
A girl about my own age came in and sat down a few rows in front of me. I couldn’t help but notice her. She had beautiful long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail and was laughing and talking to the person accompanying her. I couldn’t
help but notice she had a scoliosis like mine but much worse. She was bent right over sideways but still laughing, still happy.
This is where my third bit of luck came in. It struck me, perhaps not immediately but at
some time after I had seen her that you have choices in life and you are also dealt a hand of cards. What you do with them and your life is up to you. You are the only one who can choose how to play them. What amazing luck to have that insight
and recognise it for what it was, that it could change my life, and I was only seventeen.