Disease knocks twice on the doors of baby boomers

How the survivors of polio are facing coronavirus: a generation found vulnerable once again. (Source: The University of Melbourne)

By Gabby Torpey|@gabbytorpey

Polio (poliomyelitis) was once the most feared disease of the 20th century. During the summers of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s young children were at high risk of being paralyzed or the extreme, dying.

The disease, believed to have formed in as early as the 1800s, caused an estimated 15,000 cases of paralysis each year before a vaccine was made available in the 50s.

It’s estimated that 20,000 to 40,000 Australians developed paralytic polio between 1930 and 1988, with Tasmania considered the worst affected state.

Born in 1938, Jill Major grew up on a farm in Tasmania with her older brothers and sisters. Although Ms Major never contracted the disease her older sister and cousin were affected for life and became a part of the some 400,000 polio survivors in Australia today.

Taking a step back in history we can learn from the blunders of the past, and while many mockingly label the coronavirus ‘the boomer remover’ we could perhaps learn from the survivors of awful disease.

Isolation

Ms Major, who is now 82, was just a teenager when her older sister caught polio but still remembers how life was for her family during that time.

“We all had to be isolated, but it was easy for us because we were already isolated on the farm,” she said.

For many families things were not so easy, especially if a family member caught polio.

“The houses were fumigated, and people were quarantined and the whole family was ostracized. A bit like a … I suppose they were treating the virus like this one now,” Ms Major said.

While Ms Major and her family were in a desolate section of Tasmania her older sister Bev, who was 21 and working at the time, was exposed to polio.

“My sister and I went to visit her [Bev] and when we knocked on the door her roommate said she had gone to hospital with polio, but we weren’t allowed to see her,” she said.

“We had to go home on this bus to tell mum. There was no way of communication. See, we didn’t have phones back then. Somebody had written a letter and sent it to mum, but it took a week to get there.”

Access to health experts was not so easy either with Australia still financially recovering from World War 2, there was little to no public transport.

“There were no doctors.” Ms Major reflects.

“Back then you had to go miles and miles for a doctor and there were no busses expect once a day because it was after the war and they had no petrol.”

Education

While many families worry about their children’s education during this 2020 pandemic, in the 1950s most children were homeschooled in the fear they might contract polio and live life in an iron lung.

“The young ones weren’t allowed to go to school because it was mainly young people that got it,” Ms Major said.

She remembers “big letters” coming in the mail each week with schoolwork for her brothers and sisters to do.

“I wasn’t old enough to have correspondence school, but mum made me do it because she wanted me to stay out of the hair of the other two that had to do it. When I went to school I was supposed to go into grade one as far as years are concerned but I was put in grade three because I was a mile in front of the kids.”

Panic

Polio was a terrible disease with symptoms resulting in death or life-long disabilities.

It is said that one in 200 infections led to irreversible paralysis and among those paralyzed, 5 to 10 per cent died when their breathing muscles became immobilized.

Rather than gradual symptoms, paralysis and even death could take just hours in some cases.

Children were told to get plenty of rest and were watched carefully by their parents for any signs of sickness.

As children, Ms Major and her siblings didn’t take the warnings very seriously and she admits it wasn’t until their older sister caught it that they began to live life in caution.

When asked if there were many people that panicked Ms Major speedily replied, “my mum”.

“If any of us ever sneezed or coughed mum took our temperature and watched us for hours. She didn’t take her eyes off us,” she said.

Although M. Major remembers her mum’s fear it is perhaps reasonable that many panicked.

“Polio was the worst one because it left people maimed, really twisted their bodies. It was awful and we saw a lot of it.”

Life for Bev

Ms Major’s sister Bev was 21 when she caught polio. Diagnosed early, she was considered lucky compared to other patients whose treatment was left too late.

Upon contracting Polio Bev’s left arm became paralyzed and she spent six months in hospital with her arm in a sling.

Although Ms Major and her family were not allowed to see Bev during her treatment, at her funeral last year much of her story was relayed by friends and family.

“They put her in an iron lung and they were going to cut her neck to help her breath. She told them to ‘f’ off. ‘I’m not having my throat cut’ or something like that,” Ms Major explained, reminding that women did not swear back then.

Bev recovered from her polio and regained movement in her arm and was able to go back to work and live a relatively normal life.

She was told that she had to keep the arm exercised so she decided to start playing badminton. It was there that she met and married her umpire husband.

In her badminton career she met Eddie McGuire and taught his kids how to play before a reoccurrence in her 70’s when her arm started to turn black.

 

Today in Australia there are thousands of survivors of polio, many still paralyzed in wheelchairs or with limps as they walk.

Arguably, baby boomers are the unluckiest generation with a second plague now that threatens their lives after a childhood of fear.

If you are lucky enough to still have your grandparents, great-grandparents or family old enough to remember Polio it is worth asking about their experiences.

In comparison to their stories, we can find ourselves almost lucky during the current pandemic thanks to technology for communication to our loved ones, medical professionals readily at hand if needed and teachers with us at every step of the way.

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