Tags: building recession, Illawarra region, iron lung, polio, quarantine, stress
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.
“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
Tags: Illawarra coast, immunisation, Polio epidemic, Salk vaccine
On the 21st of June, 1961, on the Illawarra coast of New South Wales, the first case of the disease commonly known as infantile paralysis was reported. We now know it generally as poliomyelitis.
Polio raged through the many small communities around Lake Illawarra and farther south for the next six months. By the end of October, fifty cases had been reported, five of which had been fatal. The peak month was September, with twenty-two new cases reported. From about then, the epidemic began to ease, with fewer cases reported each week.
Those numbers tell a story, but only a tiny part of it. They do not tell of the fear and the worry and the heartbreak that this dreaded disease caused to individuals and families as it swept through the Illawarra and South Coast that winter and spring. They do not tell of the lives torn apart, the futures of young and old forever changed by a tiny unseen virus. Some people avoided going into public places or visiting family and friends. Everyone was afraid they or a loved one would be next.
We were a part of that largely untold story, and three of my family are included in the case statistics. Salk vaccine, administered through injection, had already been available to all children who attended school, and had already been immunised against the disease. I remember walking with the other children from my school down to the Council Chambers to stand in line to be given the needle. Of the five children in our family, four of us had been vaccinated in the school programme.
As the epidemic grew and spread through the community, the vaccine was made available to all by the local Council. Because of the huge demand for inoculations, our local immunisation centre ran out. Because of that and probably other reasons too, Mum, Dad and David, my three-year-old brother, were never vaccinated.
David was too young for school, and often played with four-year-old Jeffrey from two houses away. One day, we heard that Jeffrey’s younger cousin, who lived nearby, was in hospital. It was polio, the diagnosis nobody wanted. We were really sorry that the little cousin, only fifteen months old, had been struck down. David continued to play with Jeffrey as usual. My older brother and sister, aged sixteen and fourteen, were working at that time, while my younger sister and I were at school. I was near the end of my first year at high school.
One Tuesday in early October, David was unwell, so he stayed inside. He was playing with his little boats, kneeling on a stool at the kitchen sink. When he went to get down from the stool, he fell. Mum lifted him up but he couldn’t stand. I think Mum knew right away what was wrong. We were fortunate to have a telephone and she rang the doctor, who said to get David up to his surgery right away.
I don’t know how Mum got him there, whether she pushed him in a stroller the mile or so, or if there was somebody around to take them in a car. The doctor checked David and called an ambulance. He was admitted to the isolation ward of Wollongong Hospital. We couldn’t go to visit him until after the incubation period of two weeks was up. As it turned out, we wouldn’t be able to see him for another four weeks.
© Linda Visman
 These figures come from various news reports in the “Illawarra Daily Mercury”, November 1961.
Tags: Catholics, guilt, isolation and quarantine, prayer, Rosary, Salk caccine
This story tells of a time in 1961 when everything changed for our family.
There’s a tiny pebble beneath my knee and I open my eyes a fraction. Reaching down, I brush it away, impatient at the distraction. I must keep my concentration total, or my prayers won’t be effective.
It’s difficult to stay focussed on the Mysteries of the Rosary when I am so worried about Dad. I’m not saying the Joyful Mysteries. They don’t seem right. Neither do the Glorious Mysteries. The Sorrowful Mysteries fit the situation much better. The rosary beads pass through my fingers, one for each Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and the Glory be at the end of each decade of the Rosary. I’ve done The Agony in the Garden. The next decade is The Scourging at the Pillar. But my mind refuses to focus on the sufferings of Jesus.
“Please don’t let Dad die. Let him come back home soon.”
My concern for my earthly father constantly interrupts my address to the One in Heaven, and again I have to force myself to concentrate.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
I can hear my older brother, Peter, in the kitchen. My sisters, Pauline and Sheelagh, are probably there too, though I can’t hear them. I’m in the lounge room, in the dark so nobody will see me. I don’t know why I don’t want them to see me, because we all know how important prayer is – and this is an especially important time for prayer.
The carpet is rough on my knees, but I’m used to kneeling on all sorts of floors. I’ve done it for most of my thirteen years, and I can ignore the discomfort. However there’s usually the back of another pew in church, a desk at school, or my bed to lean against. It’s hard to ignore the ache in my back from having no support for most of the Sorrowful Mysteries. I stretch, then say another Hail Mary, feeling guilty that I can’t keep focussed on Jesus and His Mother. My mind soon wanders again.
Mum’s at the hospital. I don’t know how she got there because there are no buses at night. It’s very hard for her. She always worries so much about everything, even little things. Now we have a really big worry. She’s already had to go to the hospital every day for the last two weeks to see my little brother, David. Now Dad’s in the isolation ward too, in the adults’ part, not the kids’ part. It’s pretty hard for us four as well. We have to wait at home, not knowing what’s happening. What will we do if Dad dies?
That’s what the prayers are for. Surely Jesus and Mary will help us. We’ve always gone to Mass and kept the Holy Days. But what if I’ve done something bad and God won’t listen to my prayers? I haven’t been able to go to Confession, none of us have. Not since we’ve been isolated in the house to stop the germs spreading. Surely Jesus will realise that. We can’t even go to school. I close my eyes tight and hold my breath, sending my prayers up to Heaven.
“Please listen, God. Even if I’ve been bad, Daddy’s a good man. He loves you and keeps the Commandments and goes to Mass. We don’t have much money even though he works hard. Please, don’t take him away from us. I’ll do anything you want me to.”
Hoping God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Ghost – and Mary too – are all listening, I begin the next decade of the Rosary, The Crowning With Thorns. I think about how that must have hurt Jesus. Then I think about David, and wonder why a three-year-old like him has to suffer.
It was Tuesday two weeks ago, and he was kneeling on the stool at the kitchen sink, playing in the water with his little boats. He wasn’t feeling too good and he fell off. Then he couldn’t stand up. Mum took him straight to the doctor. She had to carry him all the way, about a mile. Even though he’s only three he must have been heavy. The doctor sent him straight to the isolation ward at Wollongong hospital.
It’s Tuesday today as well. Mum said Dad was driving to work in his truck this morning when he felt sick and weak. So he went to the doctor’s surgery instead. By the time the ambulance took him to the hospital, he could hardly walk or even sit up. It sounds like he’s really bad. Oh, why didn’t they have the vaccine like we did? They wouldn’t have got this awful disease. Me and Peter and Pauline and Sheelagh walked from school down to the Council Chambers to get the needles. Salk vaccine it’s called.
We had our needles before people started to get polio around here. But for the last couple of months, polio has been everywhere, all along the Illawarra Coast, and it’s been really scary. They call it an epidemic – that’s when lots of people get it. Some people have even died. Now Dad has it as well as David, and we don’t know what will happen to them, or whether they’ll get better. Mum didn’t have the needles. Gee, I hope she doesn’t catch it too. I begin another decade of the Rosary.
Peter pokes his head through the door and sees me kneeling there.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“Saying the Rosary for Dad. Want to say it with me?”
“Nah,” he says. “I’m hungry. Where’s the tin of jam?”
I sigh and make the sign of the cross, putting my rosary beads away in a little bag. I’m hungry too, though I hadn’t noticed it until that moment. I get to my feet and go into the kitchen.
“I’ll cut the bread,” I say, picking up the knife. “I cut it straighter than you.”
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: alcohol abuse, brain damage from substance abuse, indigenous communities, petrol sniffing
There are some things about living and working in indigenous communities that are heart-breaking. During the time I was in the Northern Territory in the 1990s, there were two problems that were endemic.
Alcohol abuse was rife, and quite obvious in some places. Many indigenous leaders, along with government and welfare organisations, decided that one way to attack the problem was to make a rule declaring their communities “dry”. That meant no alcohol could be brought into or consumed within the community and a defined area around it.
In a lot of communities, it didn’t work, and ‘grog’ runners made a fortune bringing in illicit liquor at highly inflated prices.
A second scourge in some places was petrol sniffing. This was mostly among youngsters and young men and women, who got some sort of high from sniffing leaded petrol. There were kids as young as seven or eight with brain damage as a result – but the damage was done to the older ones as well.
I wrote this poem after I left the N.T., when I’d heard about more problems with alcohol and petrol.
He awakens in his bed of rags
by his brother down the creek.
Just seven and ten years old they are,
with a life that’s cold and bleak.
Their parents lost in grog’s embrace
are hardly ever seen;
the boys once better off that way
than being victims in between
periods of sanity
glimpses of lucidity
They feel no hunger pangs although
no food they’ve seen for days,
for they’re caught in another hell
that leaves them in a haze,
wiping out their intellect,
emotion – caring – being
a can of petrol all they want,
vacant eyes no longer seeing
periods of sanity
glimpses of lucidity
Tags: dangers on a building site, floor joists, rib injuries
When Dad had finished the framework for the two extra bedrooms, we would walk out of the kitchen door – the only external door at the time – and across the floor joists. Dad had laid boards across the top of the joists, to the side of the house next to the garage where our uncle’s family lived. If we wanted to go out the back to the pan toilet, we could go that way. Or we could go the shorter way, which involved stepping from joist to joist, to the back of the frame, then jumping down to the ground. You can guess which way we kids preferred to go. Before long, we were racing across them as if they were a solid floor.
One day, having been cooped up for hours by incessant rain, I was eager to get outside to play. The joists were still wet, but that didn’t stop me from skipping across them at top speed on my way to the back yard. I was almost there when my foot slipped off the second-last joist. I couldn’t save myself and my legs crashed between the joists. But my momentum carried me forward, and my upper body landed fair on top of the two-inch wide hardwood timber frame. The air rushed out of my lungs and I was left gasping. I flopped across the joist, staring down at the bits of rubble, scraps of wood and dark wet earth, scared and disoriented, the pain in my chest making it almost impossible to breathe.
I must have groaned or called out, or Dad heard me when I fell, because suddenly he was there. He asked if I could speak and I dazedly shook my head. He carefully picked me up and carried me inside. By the time he’d placed me on the bed I was breathing again, but my chest hurt. After a quick conference with Mum, Dad took me out to his work truck and we were on our way to the doctor’s surgery. Dr Needham didn’t think any of my ribs were broken, just badly bruised, but he said I should be strapped up, just in case. I wondered what kind of strap would go around my chest. Was it like a big leather belt? Would I be able to move?
The strapping turned out to be a wide strip of sticking plaster, just like Mum or Dad used to cut from a roll to keep the lint in place when we’d cut or grazed ourselves (there were no Band Aids then). However this plaster was much wider. Dad helped Dr Needham stick it in place right around my skinny chest. It covered me from my armpits almost to my waist and was very uncomfortable, pulling on my skin whenever I moved – which I tried not to do anyway, because it hurt my ribs.
I had to keep the plaster on for several weeks, and it soon became very grubby. Underneath, my skin became irritated and itched like crazy. I wanted to scratch but couldn’t. The edges of the plaster frayed and bits of fabric tickled me as well. How I hated it! My ribs soon felt fine, and I kept asking Dad when it could come off. Finally the day came when Dad could remove that hated plaster. Slowly, inch by inch, he peeled it off. My skin was red and tender, and felt strangely cold without its covering. But at last it was gone and I was very thankful.
While I’d been strapped up, Dad worked hard to get the room finished. He got the corrugated iron roof on and the floorboards laid in quick time. Now nobody could slip on those joists again. And when the building was all done, we had two more bedrooms.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: childhood memory, power outage, sleeplessness
When you lose electricity in a storm, do you light the candles or turn on the flashlight? How many of each do you own?
I always light candles. I love having the power off. I love the quiet and the darkness of the night outside. With candles I may not be able to read, but I can write, and I do. One year, we were without power for a few days after a particularly violent period of stormy winter weather. I wrote a lot on those nights.
Hubby loves torches, and he has lots of them in different sizes. But he also loves to have candles burning, especialy when we lose power.
You are given $5,000 and the chance to exchange it for one of two envelopes. One envelope contains $50,000 and one contains $500. Do you make the trade? Why or why not?
When I am out and people aske me to buy raffle tickets for a fund-raiser, I may do so. However when I do, I always regard it as a donation. I never expect to win anything. So far, I have been right. Going on those odds, I would hang on to the $5,000 and enjoy having it, rather than get an empty envelope in return.
What’s your first memory?
My first memory is being in a cot in a hospital where my parents weren’t allowed to come and touch me. I was in a room in an isolation ward at Blackburn Hospital, recovering from glandular fever. I was about 3 or 4 years old.
What do you do if you can’t sleep at night? Do you count sheep, toss and turn, or get up and try to do something?
This happens to me almost every night. I may be tired when I go to bed, but as soon as my head hits the pillow, I wake up. At first I try to relax, but this doesn’t usually work. After a while, I get restless legs or my sciatica plays up and I find myself tossing and turning, trying to get comfortable. I used to get up and read until I was sleepy again, but when I’d return to bed, it would still take me ages to drop off to sleep. Now I just wait it out.
Bonus question: What are you grateful for from last week, and what are you looking forward to in the week coming up?
I was really happy to catch up with all of my siblings over the last five days. It used to be years between the five of us all getting together because two of us live at some distance from the other three. Now as we are moving through our sixties and almost into our seventies, we make a big effort to see each other more often. We usually manage to all come together at least a couple of times a year.
Although we have several activities and appointments over the next week, I am looking forward to also having some quiet time by myself.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: addiction, nicotine, quitting, smoking, withdrawal
Yesterday, I read author Kim Kelly’s blog entry on how she gave up smoking. She tells how she overcame the cravings and emotional and physical withdrawal symptoms with the aid of drugs, yes, but also with love – the love and support of her friends. Her post reminded me of my own story.
This is the relatively long comment I wrote on her blog:
The road from nicotine addiction can be a very difficult one indeed, Kim. It is wonderful that you were able to travel it and come to your non-smoking destination. Congratulations indeed.
I gave up smoking almost twelve years ago after having smoked for most of the previous 36 years – one to two packets a day. Unlike you, I enjoyed smoking and, as I lived most of that time in rural and remote areas, I wasn’t alone in the habit. I know I wasn’t physically addicted; I was emotionally addicted.
My five sons tried to get me to give it up but, because I have a stubborn streak, I resisted – for many years.
Then I caught up with a man I hadn’t seen since high school and we fell in love – we were both divorced at the time, and we also lived in different states.
He was willing to take me on, even though he hated the habit – the smell that was all-pervading and the smoking itself.
On my road trip from S.A. to N.S.W., I stayed overnight in a motel at Narrandera. I was outside having a smoke when I called him on my mobile. It was right then and there that I realised that if he wanted me enough to take my disgusting habit too, then I could give it up for him. I put out that cigarette and have not had one since. I haven’t even wanted one.
It is amazing what love can do!
One of my sons, who also worked and lived in the country took up the habit, but he has been a non-smoker now for several years, thank goodness. None of the others took it up.
I am so glad I gave up smoking. The stench is gone. I no longer allow my money to go up in smoke. I don’t have to isolate myself because of my habit. And my health is so much better. My husband thought he was taking on an invalid at the time, but was still happy to look after me. It turns out that he hasn’t needed to, and I am so glad.
Today is the fifth anniversary of my first blog post. I started it in order to get some self-discipline into my writing. It took a long time, but I am getting there.
Tags: 1930s, fashion, high heels, muscular damage, posture, shoes
My mother wore high heels. After all, she was a product of the 1920s and 30s when they became popular. If a woman dressed up – and a working woman only dressed up when she were going somewhere special – she would wear high heels, and stockings if she could get them.
High heels were said to elongate the legs and make them more attractive, and who didn’t want to be attractive! Mum wasn’t tall –just five feet, and Dad was half an inch under six feet so, for her, the higher the heels the better.
Mum loved dancing and, in their courting days and after their marriage in 1941, when he was home on leave from the R.A.F. (it was wartime), Dad took her out to every dance in the district, where they danced up a storm. Dad often said that they would be the last dancers on the floor and the band would beg them to stop so they could rest. How on earth, I have often wondered, did Mum dance, and for so long, in high heels. But she only wore heels for special occasions, and that was not even once a week.
I only wore heels for a short time, and then not very high ones. I started about 18, but stopped at 21when I was expecting the first of my five children. I found ‘flatties’ to be much more comfortable for carrying babies around.
Over the decades, I have noted the continuing attraction for wearing high heel, especially by younger women. The ante has been upped (literally) even higher since I was young. Not only have the heels got higher, but the weight of the shoes has also increased. I don’t think Mum would have been able to drag herself around in what young women wear today, let alone dance at top speed for hours in them!
About thirty years ago, the medical fraternity finally realised that wearing high heels, especially frequently and for prolonged periods, could cause quite serious problems. This can be as simple as falling and injuring oneself while wearing them, resulting in strained or broken ankles. However, more serious long-term damage can be caused by the habit of wearing high heels.
Posture changes inherent in wearing shoes that place the heels above the toes can result in considerable damage:
- Hips, shoulders, back and spine are thrown out of alignment;
- Muscle spasms can occur due to the extra pressure caused by posture changes;
- Increased pressure on the knees often leads to arthritis in that joint;
- muscles in the calf become shortened, leading to pain there and in the feet;
- the Achilles tendon can become permanently shortened, leading to tendonitis;
- toes, cramped into tight shoes, become misshapen and cannot be straightened even when wearing flat shoes..
This 3-D scan shows up some of the problems. Here’s a set of pictures that gives a good indication.
I have often wondered why women are willing to risk such injuries just for the sake of fashion or of looking sexy. But I suppose that is just the way of it; peer pressure; advertising pressure; a desire to have the latest in fashion. There is no desire to look to the future – just as is the case with young men and their testosterone-induced risk taking. The belief that ‘it will never happen to me’.
Oh how glad I am that I never became a slave to fashion. I’ll stick to my sensible shoes, thanks.
What do you think of high heels? Would you let your adolescents – as I have seen – wear them and risk permanent damage?
(c) Linda Visman