According to conventional wisdom, you aren’t really supposed to remember things from your early childhood. Well, I must be an odd bod, because I do remember.
I was a happy enough little kid for the first five years of my life, with blond, curly hair, (whatever happened to it?), and nick-named ‘Goldilocks’.
I was the eldest born of three, with a sister three and a half years younger than me and, eventually, a brother seven years younger.
One night, when I was five years old, I was tucked into bed, fit and happy, and woke up the next morning completely paralysed, unable to move, get out of bed, or breathe without great difficulty.
Understandably, my parents could not comprehend what had happened so quickly and called our family doctor, a wonderful, grumpy but caring man called John Blakemore, (who was still my doctor 20 years later … but that’s another story.)
As I said at the beginning, I’m not supposed to be able to remember, but I can recall the exact words John used when he examined me in my little bed. He stood up, with a worried look on his face, put his arms around my young mother, and said, ‘Oh, girlie’, (he always called her that), ‘I have the worst possible news for you The poor little chap has infantile paralysis (polio). I’m so very sorry. We must get him to hospital immediately. You must be brave.’
I remember being bundled up like a rag-doll and carried out to an old-fashioned ambulance, by a huge but smiling man in uniform, then being placed on a stretcher-bed in the back, strapped in and driven to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Camperdown, where I was to remain for many months.
I seemed to undergo many tests, all mysterious and painful for a frightened little boy. Strange doctors poked and prodded me, forcing my arms and legs to bend and straighten, pushing at my stomach and back, rolling me around and, all the while, muttering and shaking their heads. It felt as if I was some kind of guinea pig and they were experimenting on me. Of course, this wasn’t true.
The sudden outbreak of polio, which affected thousands of otherwise healthy young Aussies, and others around the world, had surprised and dumbfounded the medical fraternity, and our doctors were caught by surprise.
Furthermore, we knew far less about polio then than we do today. I’m not sure we even realised it was a virus, transmitted through contact, that attacked the muscle and nerve systems. And, of course, the Sabine and Salk vaccines had yet to be developed.
I remember my father being ordered by the Health authorities to completely dig out and remove a privet hedge he had laboriously and proudly planted along our side fence. Their mad claim was that neighbourhood cats performed their nightly activities in the hedge (in and around which we kids played), and that, somehow, I had caught polio from the cats.
Of course, this was a ridiculous and unsubstantiated claim. My poor father nearly killed himself digging out the hedge, his pride and joy, and saying over and over, ‘Bloody cats. A man should shoot the lot of them!’
I think I was about the first of the local kids to contract polio, and my poor parents were ostracised and shunned by our neighbours and supposed friends, for their bad parenting, which let me get this awful illness. I can remember the shame they felt, without, of course, having the faintest idea of what they’d done … or not done.
However, before long other kids, and even young adults, also developed polio, including the son of one of the neighbours who had refused to cross the street or even speak to my mother as she was to blame for my polio. They soon shut up about their supposed superiority.
After the passing of so many years, my months in hospital still encompass both clear and mixed memories. I remember the looks of utter misery on the faces of my parents, each time they came to visit me. I now know they were told that I may never come home, that I might die in hospital, and that even if I did survive, I would be a cripple for the rest of my life. Thank heavens I was not aware of this at the time.
I clearly remember a day when I was lying helplessly on my stomach, on a hard bed, while some well-meaning nurses were massaging my back. A visiting American doctor asked them what they were doing to me. ‘We’re massaging his back. He has polio,’ they replied.
‘I can see that for myself’, said the visiting doctor; ‘but I suggest you turn him over if you want to help the poor little bugger. He has it in the stomach … not the back!’
Every now and again, I find myself wondering what might have been my fate if that American doctor had NOT been visiting my ward on that particular day. I still remember what he looked like … and his was the first American accent I’d ever heard.
Because I had great difficulty breathing, I spent much of my time in an awful machine called an iron lung, which forced air into and out of our useless lungs. It resembled one of those huge boxes that magicians use on stage when they pretend to saw a pretty girl in half.
At night, in the darkness of our ward, we could hear the endless whooshing sound these monsters made, as they breathed for those of us who couldn’t breathe for ourselves. Some nights, even now, I can still hear the sound … Whoosh! Whoosh! In and out!
I must have been pretty precocious, despite my age and illness, as I had my first girlfriend when I was in the Children’s Hospital, all those years ago. Her name was Barbara. She had beautiful, brown eyes and thick, dark hair in ringlets. Her little bed was next to mine, and at night the kind nurses, perhaps knowing what might happen to at least some of us, used to push our beds right up against each other so we could go to sleep holding hands.
One night, or probably early one morning, I felt Barbara’s hand slip from mine. Soon, some nurses came and quietly took her away. I never saw her again, but I somehow knew that a very bad thing had happened to her. When I asked my parents to explain it, they could not. Death visited very close to me that night.
There were only two highlights of my months in hospital. One was each visit by my parents. Each time they bought me a little Dinky Toy model car from a small, nearby shop. I still have those little cars today. Like me, they’ve seen better days.
The other special highlight was the frequent visits by a huge, smiling, short-giant of a man, who wore a Red Indian outfit and feathered headdress, who came whooping and laughing down the corridor, handing out lollies and presents. Every time he visited us he made us forget, for a while, our pain and misery. His name was Big Chief Little Wolf, the famous wrestler … and he remained my hero for the rest of his life. His fate was to be far worse than mine.
It seemed that my recovery was not totally straightforward. I came home several times, in an ambulance-car, and was allowed to stay home for a while. Then I had to return to hospital for more treatment. While I was at home one of my father’s duties was to take me to the seaside and hold me in front of him so the waves could crash against my stomach, supposedly strengthening my stomach muscles. The only problem was that, although dad loved fishing, he was terrified of water, especially the sea. Neither he nor my sister, who is much like him, ever learned to swim.
I can still mentally picture my poor, terrified father standing in the shallows of the ocean, holding me as far out in front of him as possible, with a look of absolute fear on his face. I’m not sure if the waves ever managed to reach my stomach, let alone give it any worthwhile massaging.
I also had to wear a special corset to support my weakened stomach muscles. It was a triumphant day for my boyish pride when it could finally be discarded. Many years later, after my mother died in 1998, we found the tiny, pink corset, faded but intact, tucked away in one of her cupboards.
I was, however, one of the lucky polio victims who did make a full recovery (or so I thought for many years)! I led a full, sporting and physically, active life – running, swimming, playing tennis, cricket, badminton, squash, and other sports – as well as being an Officer in the Australian Army Cadet Corps. Also, for several years I was an amateur wrestler at both Leichhardt Police Citizens Boys Club and at The University of Sydney.
Over 25 years ago, an increasingly weak and problematic left ankle, which I attributed to a bad fall at tennis, was eventually diagnosed as post-polio syndrome, a condition I’d not heard of, but of which I’m now all too painfully aware. It appears I’m one of over 400,000 Aussies who thought we’d overcome the polio of our childhood, only to discover that the actual virus never dies, but remains in our bodies, sometimes manifesting itself in a weak joint, such as my left ankle, and now, inexorably, affecting my left leg and hip. There is no cure, no real treatment, and, because we are all oldies, our condition is not fashionable in terms of medical research or expenditure.
Even so, I count my blessings, as some of my little friends of all those years ago died tragically young, while others spent the rest of their lives with withered, useless arms or legs, never able to enjoy the full and active life granted to me.
Graham Sims (2018)
(NOTE: Graham has been booked as our speaker in September. We sincerely hope that lockdown will be over and we can hear his talk on Bea Miles.)