In June this year, the UK declared a “national incident” after the poliovirus was detected in the country for the first time since 1984. The infection, caused by a virus, causes fever, vomiting, and muscle stiffness.
Most people have no symptoms or even know they are infected, but for some it causes temporary or permanent paralysis. The last case of polio in Ireland was also in 1984 and it is currently believed that there are around 7,000 survivors in that country, all of whom will have increasing needs as they age.
first release 2007, Polio & Us: Personal Stories of Survivorsis a testament to those who survived the Irish polio epidemics and in light of the recent pandemic, its aftermath and to highlight the benefits of vaccination the Board of Polio Survivors Ireland has decided to republish this book.
Often forgotten, this book gives those who survived polio a voice to share how they overcame the challenges and how they had to shape their lives afterward.
Bridie McMahon is 76 years old and contracted polio in 1950 which left her left arm completely paralyzed and her right arm weak. She was forced to leave her home in Mayo when she was only four, spending four years between Cappagh Hospital in Finglas and St Mary’s Hospital in Baldoyle (where she was undergoing therapy). She was released just before her eighth birthday and was told to wear her left arm brace every day.
Being away for so long meant she didn’t recognize most of her family members, but despite that rocky start, that didn’t stop her from living a full and busy life — and over the years she’s become a wife, mother, and career woman in various roles in Ireland and abroad.
“Polio has affected me over the years as I couldn’t participate in sports (at school) because I couldn’t raise my hands above my head,” she says. “It also influenced my career choice as I wanted to do nursing but couldn’t without the strength of my left arm. But I worked in marketing and reservations before I got married in 1970 and (with her husband) moved to Bermuda where I worked in hotel reception and reservations.
“After we returned to Ireland I had my three children and then went to Maynooth University as a mature student before training as a community development worker, arts coordinator and then as an external heritage studies trainer in Maynooth before also getting a role in of Mayo Abbey.
“I have some issues with my right arm as I overuse it to compensate for the paralysis on my left side, but I can still type, write and bake cakes. And although I wake up with a pain in my shoulder from time to time, I’m hoping to get that under control.”
She says she’s learned to live with the various side effects of being a polio survivor, but she has a lot of energy – and over the years she’s been fundraising and volunteering for the charity Polio Survivors Ireland – and she’s grateful for that for.
“What you never had, you never missed — look at what I’ve done, the places I’ve been, and the people I’ve met,” she says. “I have never complained about anything and am very positive. People never knew (of polio) so it wasn’t a label. I still drive, I’m a minister of the Eucharist and I could hold hands in dance competitions (at school) – I had my feet so I felt lucky.”
Colette O’Reilly is another of the 29 survivors featured in the book. She was diagnosed with polio when she was just nine months old and affects both legs and left arm. But she’s never known life any other way, so she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out.
In fact, she got involved in as many things as possible throughout her childhood, believing that a disability shouldn’t define who you are or what you do. And over the years, her love of the sport has not only helped her gain and maintain a positive attitude, but she’s also achieved great success.
“I wouldn’t have known it any other way as a kid (since she was always in a wheelchair),” she says. “I went to boarding school and lived on a farm. Then when I was 16 I joined IWA Sports. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me because it made me who I am today. I’ve tried all the sports – swimming, table tennis, javelin, shotgun, basketball, and my coach at the time, Carl Gates, said why don’t you try the track chair, so I decided to get involved. And right from the start I loved the freedom of flying downhill in a chair.
“I started out in local sports across the country and then, after reaching a certain level, I switched to international sports. You have to achieve a certain grade in order to be selected – it takes a long time and there is a lot of training, self-discipline and you have to set goals. I had to be disciplined with food and keep journals. I’ve also used a lot of affirmations and kept telling myself I could do it. I’ve had fantastic mentors and great friends along the way who all told me I could do it.
“I also volunteer with Polio Survivors Ireland; It’s great to be around, meeting new members and the staff are very helpful. They know you can always call if they don’t have the answer there and then they will get back to you right away. I think it’s important to keep in touch with other polio survivors because they may be able to tell you things you didn’t know.”
The 54-year-old from Leitrim has worked as both a health coach and Montessori teacher over the years and has competed in four Paralympics, four World Championships and three European Championships. She has also competed in over 20 marathons in wheelchair racing.
Although she has refused to let polio rule her life, she says it can be difficult, but she remains determined not to let it get the better of her. “No doubt as you get older it really affects you as your muscles weaken,” she says. “But I’m one of those people who tries to reverse it by doing light exercise because it’s extremely important to stay active and not overdo it. I couldn’t train like I did when I was 20 and 30, but there are alternatives.
“And I’ve never let my disability get me down. It made me the person I am today.”
While polio is all but eradicated in the western world, the current situation in the UK is worrying – but Polio Survivors Ireland’s Emma Clarke Conway says vaccination is the best protection.
“If you and your children’s vaccinations are up to date, there is little to worry about right now,” she says. “Of course we will be watching with interest how the situation in Great Britain develops. It is worrying and unthinkable that polio could return, but as long as vaccination rates remain as high as possible there is no reason to believe there could be an outbreak in Ireland.”
Polio & us, written by Nuala Harnett, is a testimony to those who survived the Irish polio epidemic. It’s a time capsule of the 29 stories of Irish polio survivors and how they overcame the challenges of this indiscriminate disease. All proceeds go toward services and support for polio survivors.
- Polio is caused by an infectious virus that multiplies in the gut for one to three weeks, after which the person either recovers or becomes very ill.
- Infection rates are very high, but the vast majority of patients have no symptoms or appear to have a flu-like illness.
- It can be transmitted through poor hygiene practices and spread through feces or the saliva of an infected person.
- Symptoms can be mild, but the first signs are usually fever, sore throat, headache, diarrhea, weakness and, in some, difficulty breathing. In other cases, it can affect the spinal cord and nerves at the base of the brain, causing paralysis. The limbs can become limp and in more extreme cases it can be life threatening.
- There is no cure for polio or for the neurological condition post-polio syndrome (PPS), which can affect polio survivors 20 to 40 years after they were originally infected with the disease.
- Risks can be minimized by washing hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before eating and preparing food.
- The only way to stay safe is by vaccination – so parents whose children are behind schedule with their vaccination plans due to Covid should contact their GP to ensure all vaccinations are up to date.
For more information or to purchase the book, please visit polio.ie or amazon.de
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/stories-from-the-survivors-of-irelands-polio-epidemic-41926670.html Stories from survivors of the polio epidemic in Ireland