My polio

POLIO 1953

I was collected one October morning by Uncle George (Geordie), now deceased. I had been playing with cousin Jennifer across the road (now Conway, nee Brown). When I saw Geordie it was down with everything and run to him….(I had a special attachment to him at this early age). This was exciting, and I do still re call that feeling of joy, to go with him in the car and gather potatoes, on the farm at the “Ring”, nearby Tyresson, and Granny Coulter would come with sandwiches, tea etc at lunchtime….. I was a very excited 6 year old!

Later in the afternoon I remember being very tired and sweating….was taken home to Clare and put to bed. Found it difficult to sleep, so Dad stayed with me that night. I was very restless during the night and when Dad got up in the early morning he noticed that my body movements were “strange”? He went across the field to Granda Allen’s, before he went to work. Granda came over shook his head saying something to the effect that “this looks bad, looks like polio”….there was an on going epidemic in the region.

(NB: My Granda was a country butcher as well as a barrel maker for salt in the local Bacn Factory, NOT an expert on Polio! However it was to help Dad in an hour of desperation, I can only imagine!)

Doctor Flanagan (Desmond) (His brother, John’s son Paul, is still the family doctor) was summoned and around late afternoon an ambulance arrived, most probably driven by the regular driver, Duncan Crossett. I was transported to Magherafelt Hospital. Possible date 11 October 1953. I remember Doctors, nurses and Dad with me in that short visit to Magherafelt. I also remember an injection into my back. In fact r´this was lumber puncture, when fluid was drained from my spine for analysis.

I was then taken on to Purdysburn Fever Hospital in Belfast, accompanied by Dad and a Nurse Robinson. I remember being sad after having been carried from the ambulance, not knowing what was going to happen, and where was my Dad? He had gone and I was all alone in a big room, lying on a red rubber sheet…….after this I don’t remember too much.

A few days later my Dad appeared outside the huge glass window (I was in isolation) together with the Methodist minister, Rev Frith Little. I was so very happy….now I’ll get home, not really understanding that I was paralyzed. But no physical contact was allowed, just a lot of hand waving. I had developed infantile paralysis. This was apparently a critical period in the development of this illness….it was unknown how serious my physical status was going to be affected?

The first few weeks: I have a clear recollection of the feeling of lonliness, not really knowing what was happening, although I did know that I was “sick”, simply because I was in hospital. Where were my Dad and Mum?….when was I getting home? Strange people (hospital staff) surrounding me most of the time. I was 6 years old. These first weeks were traumatic.

In order for my parents (and other family members) to keep up to date with my progress in the early weeks, I was given an identity number, which was published daily in the evening newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph. Other families in the same dilemma had the same service. The status list would be formulated with the following illness levels. Critical, Serious, Very ill, Ill.  My number had appeared in all these categories.



As the weeks went by I got used to the daily routines and the weekly/Sunday visits by Mum and Dad. Occasionally they could also visit on a Wednesday. In order to be able to visit me frequently Dad bought an old car, an Austin, reg nr BLU 852.

(NB: They didn’t really have the money, so Dad asked the Publican Harry Eastwood, owner of the Dunleath Bar for a loan of GBP 50? No problem! So the agreement was to pay off a sum every month. Eastwood didn’t take the last GBP 10. A very generous man, as will be seen later as well)

Other memories from that hospital stay:

  • was the sound of the horses hooves on the cobbled streets outside the hospital windows! They were transporting coal and milk to the neighbourhood.
  • being able to lift a spoon and feed myselfagain…the Nurse left the food on the tray to go and collect something. When she returned I had eaten everything!
  • After visiting time on the Sundays, the staff would come and collect all chocolate and sweets given during the visit. That would then be distributed at certain times during the following week!
  • I had developed Infantile Paralysis from the polio virus. This had left me totally paralysed for a few weeks…gradually recovering to a point when I could feed myself. However I still couldn’t walk. I remember the physiotherapist teaching me to hold on to parallel bars, with a body corset to support my back and stomach, and encouraging me to put one leg past the other.
  • I remember my first faltering steps, fitted with a full length caliper on my right leg and a corset with steel rods in the back. The feeling of happiness that I could walk again was very special. Even to this day I can re live that feeling!

The time finally came to return home….again I didn’t understand what was happening. Dad came and said we’re going home. This we did in a Taxi, shared by someone else, a man called Richard Devlin. That Taxi fare was paid for by Harry Eastwood, the Dunleath Publican!

On arrival home, late one evening, I was excited to see Yvonne for the first time in 33 weeks! I went into her bedroom, one step down from the kitchen. I’ll never forget her words “who is that big man?”

Several days after my arrival home Ali, Orville and Rodney Colvin from No 8, Festival Pk (across the road in the same estate as Evelyn & Sandy) arrived with me and played. Ali & Orville came regularly and we became firm friends….into teenage years. Ali and I would go to the “pictures” on Fri/Sat evenings!

Following my home coming in May 1954….33 weeks in hospital….and until 1958, when I was 11 and started Cookstown High School, I attended Magherafelt Hospital Out Patients for physio training and controls. First on a weekly basis, travelling by ambulance, driven either by Bill Oxtoby/Duncan Crossett with Nurse Robinson on board. Once per month I would meet a Specialist, Dr Crymble and a


Pysio, Miss Morris, travelling from Belfast to Magherafelt Hospital. After a period it was every 2 weeks, then monthly, bi monthly. Finally, by the age of 11 it was every 3 months. I wore a caliper and body corset for the first 3 years. When I was 10 I only needed the caliper. During these years of rehab Dad had to repair the caliper on many occasions. He was a welder so it was no problem for him.

My right leg was still weak and I was well warned after the removal of the caliper NOT to be climbing trees or taking part in dangerous games. When I started the High School I didn’t have to wear the caliper any longer. By this time Mum and I travelled by bus to the Out Patients…..getting off at Broad St, in the town center and walking almost 2 km.

When I started the High School I didn’t have to wear the caliper any longer.

The rehab years 1954-61/62 were crucial for my physical development. The paralysis had left me with a weak right leg and weak stomach muscles. In order to combat these weakness’s Mum spent a lot of time with me doing various exercises recommended by the Physio. 10-15 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes each evening.

She insisted even when I didn’t want to or when I was feeling tired….the exercises had to done!! How I now thank her for all the work she put in, bending and stretching that right leg, standing up and swinging it front to back, making me pull my stomach in and out, her bending and stretching my right foot and turning it right to left to right. Into my early teens I had to put a splint on every night, keeping my right foot upright, endeavouring to decrease my “dropped foot”.  This was a simple plaster cast, which was changed as my foot grew. To keep my foot and leg still (the cast was up to knee height) a bandage was wrapped around the splint/leg. It was a great relief when at 13 I was told that I didn’t have to wear it anymore….same feeling when I was relieved of the caliper a few years earlier!

Being a polio victim made my life different in some ways…..certain activities I couldn’t participate in eg football and running. However having lived with this weakness almost all of my life I did play football, goalie, against my parents wishes. I climbed trees, I did run, a special limp running style. I could ride a bicycle and chase girls!

As I developed into a teenager I became self conscious and was on the defensive for a period between the age of 14 until 17. At 17 I got my Driver’s Licence, thanks mainIy to my then best friend Sydney Bradley, who had just passed his test shortly before me. I had poor self confidence until I met a girl, Sandra. I had a car and it was easier to attract the opposite sex. We were just kids, but having her as my girl friend made me feel something like… “well this old leg isn’t such a hindrance after all”. That romance lasted about a year….long enough for me to have built up a level of self confidence, in spite of a polio leg! Having polio did make me different but I was now learning to live with that!

And have done so until this present day…………………….

Des,  3 September 2014

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