Tags: 1961, Albion Park Rail, Dapto, polio, Wollongong
I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I wasn’t particularly happy that I had to leave St Mary’s College in 1961 after the polio epidemic. I was even less happy to be going to Dapto High – our nearest state high school – even though both my brother and sister had earlier attended there for between one or two years.
I hadn’t made any friends at St Mary’s, although I did talk with some of the girls at breaks. I always travelled to and from Wollongong alone as there were no other pupils from my school on the train, and nobody to accompany me on the half mile or so walk to and from the station at Wollongong. However, I hadn’t been unhappy there. I was comfortable with the school and its religious context, the learning style and how I was progressing in class.
The months of not being able to attend school due to the polio epidemic had been unsettling for all of us, and we’d been glad when the restrictions on our movements were lifted. But it had not been in time for school, and Dad was still struggling to get on his feet – literally. It also took a while before Dad was granted a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated (TPI) pension. For many weeks, we’d had no spare money. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the charity of the church, the police and a few friends, we wouldn’t have had anything at all.
The school holidays of summer 1961-62 meant that my younger sister and I had a lot more to do at home. Our older brother and sister had managed to get work again and were gone all week. Sheelagh and I helped as much as we could, not always with the best grace, to help Mum with the housework. We also had our little brother, three-year-old David to look after and keep occupied when he wasn’t at medical appointments. He had to wear a calliper on his leg to support his polio-affected ankle and foot, though I’m not sure just when he was fitted with that.
Anyway, when the time came to go back to school at the end of January, it had been decided that the only school I could attend was Dapto High. My sister still had a year to go at St Paul’s Primary. I don’t remember any details of being enrolled at Dapto, nor of getting a summer school uniform. I don’t remember catching on the train for the first day at the school. Nor do I remember walking the half a mile or so from the station at Dapto up to the school with a bunch of kids whom I neither knew nor wanted to know.
What I do know was that I was resentful, sulky and as unco-operative as a usually obedient, religious thirteen-year-old could be.
(c) Linda Visman
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: 1920s, 1960s, beating the odds, building, challenge, concreting, epidemic, iron lung, life-threatening illness, miracle, overcoming challenges, pneumonia, polio, resilience
Dad was always up for a challenge. Tell him he wasn’t up to doing something and he would make sure he did it, just to show he could.
In 1925, Dad turned four. During that year, he contracted pneumonia in both lungs and became gravely ill. He was nursed at home by his mother, there being limited hospital facilities at that time.
One day, two of his aunts visited the bedroom where he lay. When they left, Dad heard one of them say to his mother,
“Oh Hannah, pray for the Lord to take him”.
When they left, his mother returned and knelt beside Dad’s bed. He felt a tear fall on his hand and looked up at his mother.
“Don’t worry, Mother,” he said. “I’m not going to die.”
It took a couple of months, but Dad recovered and became a very active, energetic lad.
In 1954 we came to Australia, where we lived in the Illawarra area of NSW. In 1961, almost the last polio epidemic raged through the district. My little brother, then my older sister, then Dad contracted the disease. Dad was the worst affected and doctors wanted to put him in an iron lung so he could keep breathing.
He refused to let them and gained their agreement that, if he survived the night, he wouldn’t have to go into one.
“I wasn’t going to live the rest of my life in an iron lung,” he later told me. “What kind of life is that?”
He lived. However, a specialist told him he would never walk again and that he was to remain in bed or, at best, in a wheelchair. Dad wouldn’t have that. A friend drove him to an appointment with the specialist one day and Dad walked into his rooms on crutches. The doctor became angry and said, “If you won’t do as you’re told, I wash my hands of you”.
Dad went to another doctor, who organised a body brace and full leg caliper for him (both made of steel and leather) so he could walk more easily. A friend also made him steel crutches.
Dad made an amazing recovery, forcing his muscles to do what he wanted of them. He had been a concreting contractor in the building industry – heavy labour. Within less than two years, still in his steel supports, he was at work making moulds for concrete columns, balustrades and stepping stones. As he got stronger, he was making them from concrete. Soon, could do without braces at all.
In 2008, at the age of 86, Dad suffered a perforated bowel during a colonoscopy. He was operated on, but acquired almost every infection possible, including septicaemia, peritonitis and bi-lateral pneumonia. He became incoherent and suffered at least two heart attacks. He’d never had any heart problems before, but the massive infections were too much.
Medical staff said he wouldn’t make it and our family maintained a bedside vigil day and night. Dad turned 87 during this time. One day, when we were all gathered around his bed – he was virtually comatose, my sister softly told him “You can go now if you like Dad. You can go and be with Mum.”
Somehow, that message got through. However, it didn’t have the effect my sister expected. Over the next week, Dad rallied. He amazed the doctors, one of whom called him “my miracle patient”.
“Nobody’s going to tell me I can go to your mum,” he told me later. “It’s not time for me to die yet. I’ve too much to do.”
Dad went on to rehab and then home, where he lived alone (with family help) for another five years. He fell one night as he was going to the bathroom and broke his hip. He died six weeks later, just six days before his 92nd birthday. He had tried to rise to this challenge too, positive as always, but it was the final one, the one he couldn’t win.
He is my inspiration. Ernest Thompson, 1921-2013
How do you respond to challenges? Do you quail, or do you step up and meet them with determination? Do you have someone to whom you look up in times of personal challenge?
© Linda Visman 03.04.14
Tags: 1950s, backyard dunny, children, Christmas, family singalong, family struggle, games, horse & cart, lessons, library books, memories, old time morals, polio, reading, walking to church
I remember when…
The lake shore, the farms and the local streets
were all places where children could safely roam;
And we played pirates, and cowboys and Indians
and wandered ‘til dark in the bush near our home.
The milk and bread being delivered to our door
on a cart with a horse that knew when to stop;
When it was exciting to travel on a steam train
and a penny bought four lollies at the local shop.
And I remember…
Walking three miles to church on a Sunday
With my family and wearing my best frock;
And the joy of reading a library book
or of being allowed to stay up until eight o’clock.
Aah, the memory of…
Our excitement when Christmas morning arrived
and we couldn’t wait to see what Santa had brought;
When the family came together to share a meal
and we sang the old songs that we’d all been taught.
Do I want to remember…
Going outside down the path, in sunshine or rain,
to the backyard dunny with its newspaper and pan,
in daylight or dark, with the smell all around,
hoping they’d not come when you’re sitting to pick up the can?
I also remember…
The long hard hours Dad worked to get enough
for the basics of life and a deposit on some land;
And Mum, never knowing if ends would meet
or if there’d be enough money to go around.
And the polio that changed our whole way of life
when it struck down my brother and sister – and Dad;
How Mum coped with all the worry and stress;
Her fears we’d never keep even the little we had.
But the things I remember best are these…
the love that our family had for each other
and the strength this gave us in bad times and good;
the joy we took in life’s simple things;
the hard work that was something we all understood;
the respect that we knew was earned and not bought;
and the strong moral lessons that our parents taught.
Maybe rose-coloured glasses have changed my perspective,
But I believe that our past is always subjective.
What we do with our memories shows who we’ve become –
So let’s use them to help us in times that will come.
(c) Linda Visman
First published in “I Remember When” an anthology compiled and edited by Julie Athanasiou, Legacy Books, Melbourne, Victoria, November 2006.