Epidemic (2)

June 8, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in 1960s, Australia, Family History, Health, Memoir, Polio epidemic | 10 Comments
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There was a recession in the building industry in 1961 Australia. At that time, Dad worked as a concreting contractor, and was sub-contracted to a company that was building a large number of houses on new estates. The company went bankrupt owing Dad, among many others, several hundred pounds (a lot of money in those days). Dad had no savings, and could not pay his own suppliers. He couldn’t meet the mortgage he’d drawn on to build the house. At the height of the epidemic, he was on the verge of bankruptcy.

We all felt a responsibility, whether financially or through helping around the house (though we’d always been expected to do that). My brother, Peter, at sixteen the eldest in the family, had already left school the year before the polio hit us. Pauline had also just left school aged fourteen and was working. Then came another blow.

Exactly two weeks to the day after David fell from his stool and was admitted to hospital with polio, Dad was driving his truck to work. He began to feel very unwell, so he turned back and went to the doctor’s surgery instead. The doctor strongly suspected polio. Dad was kept away from the other patients and an ambulance called.

By the time it arrived, he could barely walk or sit up. He was taken to Wollongong Hospital, where David was still a patient. I do not know just when Mum found out that Dad had come down with the disease, as we four kids were at school. The doctor had probably called her. Perhaps she even went to the hospital with him in the ambulance, though I suspect she wouldn’t have been allowed to.

During the night, Dad’s condition worsened. He was having difficulty breathing, and the doctors decided to transfer him to Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney, where there were machines called iron lungs that helped people to breathe when their muscles wouldn’t work. On arrival, Dad was assessed by specialists. With the muscles of his diaphragm and chest affected, he struggled for breath. The specialists wanted him to be put into an iron lung to assist him to breathe. Dad said no.

iron-lung

“Leave me overnight,” he said. “If I can’t make it through on my own, then you can have your way. But I have to do the best I can first.”

Dad knew that, once in the iron lung, he would soon lose any control over his muscles that might still be there – the iron lung would take over. That could mean a lifetime locked in a machine, unable to do all the things he’d been able to do. He was always strong and active, tall but wiry, a determined man for whom major problems were simply challenges to be overcome.

The specialists reluctantly agreed, but kept a close watch on him through the night. He made it through, though they wondered how. But they didn’t know what Dad was made of. The constant hard physical work Dad had done since we’d come to Australia over six years previously, had probably helped him in his fight against the fatal effects of the disease. But his determination was his real strength.

Through all of this, Mum had to cope. She now had a son and a husband in hospital, the latter in a critical condition. She couldn’t visit either of them, one in Wollongong and one in Sydney, widely separate hospitals, and had to look after the four of us at home. Council health officials said that we were still not allowed to go out in public areas or attend school. The whole family was quarantined at home for at least another two weeks – after the two weeks we’d already been quarantined after David was diagnosed.

At that time, it wasn’t known just how polio was transmitted. Because two people in our home had come down with it, officials from the Health Department thought our place must have been dirty. They sent a team, masked and gowned, to fumigate our whole house with some sort of white gas or powder. The men who came said they were surprised at how clean and tidy it was.

There was now no income, and not likely to be for a long time. The telephone was cut off because she couldn’t pay the bill. Worse than that, Mum had not been immunised, so there was always the fear that she would come down with the disease too. It was a very stressful period. Mum had always been a worrier and easily upset. However, during this time her inner strength came to the fore.

We waited anxiously, not knowing what to expect.

© Linda Visman

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10 Comments »

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  1. Things couldn’t get any worse, could they? I didn’t realise people were still getting polio in the ’60s. I remember telling my mother that a woman I met had an iron lung. She immediately.corrected me of course.

    • Another episode to come, Linda.
      I think that 1961 epidemic was the last one in Australia. There were individual cases still, but mass immunisation made a huge difference – as did the new Sabin vaccine which was more easily administered.

  2. A family of survivors, Linda. So much happening at the same time. I often wonder whether people had stronger characters because of the hardships they endured.

    • Linda, I think this sort of experience is what gave rise to the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 🙂

  3. I didn’t realize the iron lung was a permanent thing! I thought it was just a temporary treatment until the body recovered from the symptoms. Horrifying!

    • Hi Alex. A valid comment. No, it wasn’t always a permanent thing, but it too often was. There are people still alive today who have spent their lives in an iron lung after contracting polio in the 1940s to 1960s.
      That is the thing that Dad wanted to avoid, and it is always hard to know whether you will be one who can come out of it or not.
      The symptoms don’t always go away – in fact they mostly don’t. Dad suffered from weak muscles all down his right side all his life, but still lived a normal life. My brother is still having problems all these years later.

  4. Such a difficult time! Your father demonstrated great strength in fighting the disease the way he did.

  5. I had no idea it was that bad in Australia Linda. Have you read The Golden Age by Joan London about young people and polio?

  6. […] attendance reflected that. I only missed an occasional day almost every year (except when we were quarantined for the polio) and, in my final two years, my attendance was 100%. When the time came, I actually regretted […]


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