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How 1957 polio epidemic changed lives of Belfast women

 

Sixty years after the epidemic here, Rotary International and the One Last Push campaign is bringing those affected by the disease together at a special event in Belfast Castle on Tuesday. Heather Scott, Breige Torrans and Christine Connolly tell Lee Henry about their lifelong friendship and why immunisation is vital.

Rotary and the One Last Push campaign is today co-hosting an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Belfast polio outbreak of 1957. Some 297 people contracted the disease in what was the biggest epidemic in Northern Ireland, and one of the last, just as the vaccine was beginning to become available. Rosemary Simpson, is president of Rotary Club Belfast which, like all Rotary clubs, has been working to eradicate polio around the world since 1985.

Up until the Eighties, polio was still paralysing children in the UK and there are more than 120,000 men and women suffering from the after-effects of this devastating disease.

Rosemary says: "Many have forgotten what happened here in Belfast in the Fifties - or never knew how polio touched our city. Polio is just as cruel now as it was then. The difference is, today we can do more than just prevent it. We can end it."

'As a child I tried to remain as physically active as possible'

Christine Connolly, (60), lives in Greenisland with her husband Ronnie (63). They have one grown-up son. She contracted polio aged nine months. She says:

I contracted polio in July 1957, when I was nine months old. I had flu-like symptoms and my mother knew there was a polio epidemic and called the doctor, who thought she was an alarmist. But the symptoms got worse over a few days and I was treated in Belfast Children's Hospital.

In a way, I was lucky as I hadn't yet learned how to walk and the virus didn't spread through my body as quickly as it might have done. The disease left me with a 'dropped' right foot and I wore a caliper up to my right knee until I was 10-years-old.

At home I was never treated any differently. In those days, everybody started school together on the same day, but my mum and the headmistress decided that I would start the next day for my own welfare. My mum took me in and was talking with the headmistress, I suppose about how I would cope, but they turned around and saw me sliding down the banister and it was then that they realised I would be okay. When I was fitted with a caliper I was told I was very special, that lots of people were given bracelets to wear on their arms but I was so special that I was getting a bracelet to wear on my leg instead. I was pretty proud of it. I didn't know any better.

I still managed to do things that other children could do. I was as physically active as I could be. I used to do Irish dancing, for example. My two older sisters did Irish dancing and I followed them. It was all thanks to Harold Rankin and the others at the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship. Harold in particular was very forward thinking.

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Enjoying life: Christine Connolly

The Rotary Club was also heavily involved with the rehabilitation of children living with polio in Belfast. They organised parties for children with disabilities in Crawfordsburn Country Club. They put on an annual Christmas party. Everyone came away with a present and there were fireworks. Rotary is doing amazing work around the world trying to eradicate polio and they were very active in Northern Ireland when we were children.

Breige and I have been friends since the age of four. We met at the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship. We have a great friendship, which has lasted nearly 60 years. I couldn't wish to meet a better person. I remember visiting her in Musgrave Park Hospital all those years ago and she never complained.

When I was about 20, I started to have very bad falls and pain in my legs. I hadn't been married long. At that time I was given a back brace to wear and another caliper. I got used to having falls, severe tiredness and finding it difficult to walk upstairs.

But having the support of my friends, who have lived through the same things, has been invaluable. We have so much to thank the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship for and I would encourage other people who contracted polio in 1957 to get in touch with them and come out to our meetings and events. They're so enjoyable and it's good to know that there are others out there who have lived through the same thing.

Now there is a vaccine and if the right people do the right thing then no more children will ever contract polio. As a mother, I can visualise what people can be going through when there's no need for it. It can be eradicated and one day soon, it will be."

'I'd to wear calipers until I was 11, then I'd corrective surgery'

Heather Scott (61) lives in Belfast with her husband Paul. They have two grown-up children Roy (40) and Pauline (38). She contracted polio aged 14 months. She says:

The polio outbreak happened in 1957. Lots of children were affected by it in Belfast and I was 14 months old when I was diagnosed. I had only started walking but I was dragging my leg and I had a temperature, so my mammy took me to the doctor, who sent me over to the Belfast Children's Hospital because of the epidemic.

That was on July 11 and I was diagnosed on the Twelfth. I was then transferred to Purdsyburn and then to Greenisland Orthopaedic Hospital for 14 months. I don't have any memories of that time, thank God - it wasn't a nice experience for my parents - though there are photographs that exist of me in a cot.

When I eventually was released from hospital, my mammy said that I was frightened of grass and flowers because I didn't know what they were. I'd never been outside before, really. I'd only known the inside of a hospital.

I wore calipers until I was 11, when I underwent leg-lengthening surgery. My right leg was withered and short, which it still is and they attempted to lengthen it by splitting the bones and putting in screws. It was torture, physically very sore, and I spent five and a half months in Musgrave Hospital, Belfast, convalescing.

That Christmas, I got a bad infection and had to have skin grafts and after that it was just operation after operation, all corrective surgery. Swimming helped a lot. I had started swimming when I was three and then I continued when I started going to Polio House, which was run by the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship.

That's where I met Breige and Christine. I'm the oldest child in my family and I say that I've known them longer than I've known my siblings. Harold Rankin, who was general secretary and welfare officer at Polio House, always told us to be as active as possible, because it would be better for us in later life and we really loved our time there.

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Close again: Heather Scott

I remember Breige, Christine and myself driving all around Belfast in the little bus, picking up all the other children, and every Saturday night we met at the Ormeau Baths to swim. We really loved that. Today, we're all quite good swimmers as a result.

When we got married and had children, we lost touch, which lots of people do. We were all just so busy. Breige even moved away from Belfast for a few years. But we're all very close again, since she moved back, and are the best of friends, as are our wider families.

It was hard growing up with polio and as I've gotten older, my other joints and limbs have overcompensated for the parts of my body that were weakened by it. We're all getting worse, unfortunately. Polio affected us all in different ways. I walk with a crutch. Breige is in a wheelchair and Christine can't walk unaided.

But it's fantastic that we're so close to eradicating polio. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy - the hospitals, the operations, the pain. If telling our story can help one more child be vaccinated and help end this cruel disease, then we must do it."

'I slept in a plaster cast covering me from my neck to my hips'

Breige Torrans (62) lives in Glengormley. She contracted  polio aged 20 months. She says:

As a toddler, I was often outside playing in the streets. For my sister's birthday, we had a little party, and when I started to feel sick, my mother thought I'd eaten too much ice cream. A locum doctor was called and I was sent to bed with flu.

It was two weeks before our family doctor saw me and realised how serious my condition was. I was blue-lighted in an ambulance to Purdysburn Fever Hospital, put behind glass in an isolation ward and diagnosed with polio. I was 20-months-old.

I spent three years in hospital, something like six months in an iron lung, and when I came out, I had a back brace and calipers on both legs. I was supposed to be in a wheelchair, but we lived in a two-up two-down and there wasn't the room for one, so my mother used to walk me up and down the corridor.

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Breige Torrans

I also had to sleep in a plaster cast, which was moulded to me and covered me from my neck to my hips. It was freezing. We didn't have central heating and it was very difficult to sleep. I eventually pleaded with the doctor to let me sleep without it and he agreed.

When I was five or six, I started going to Polio House. I would be picked up in the minibus on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, the last be to be picked up and the first to be dropped off. I've known Christine and Heather since my first trip.

I was able to get a job as a PA and shorthand typist after attending the College of Business Skills and started working in Belfast. There had been a number of explosions and all the buses were suspended, so I had to start walking home, which was difficult for me as I had a severe limp.

I remember a man in a car saw that I was having difficulty, stopped and asked where I was heading. I told I lived on the Antrim Road. He said, I'll drop you as close as I can. His kindness in giving me a lift saved me hours of pain.

Some employers were fantastic, others less so. I've also had breast cancer as well as the complications of Post-Polio Syndrome, including various falls, a broken back, operations and pain. I worked full-time for as long as I could but I have to slow down now.

I lived away from Belfast for a few years but moved back in 1994. It took about a year to settle back into the community. One day I ran into Eddie McCrory, who I knew from the minibus. He told me about the Polio Fellowship and its regular meetings rekindled my friendships with Christine and Heather."

Facts and figures about polio ...

What is polio?

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease. It is caused by the poliovirus. The virus spreads from person to person and can invade an infected person's brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis.

For up to one in 100 people, the polio virus causes temporary or permanent paralysis, which can be life threatening.

There's no cure for polio, so it's important to make sure that you and your children are fully vaccinated against it.

Symptoms of polio

About 95% of people with polio won't have any symptoms and will fight off the infection without even realising they were infected.

A small number of people will experience a flu-like illness three to 21 days after they're infected.

Symptoms can include:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • a sore throat
  • a headache
  • abdominal (tummy) pain
  • aching muscles
  • feeling and being sick

During the epidemic in 1957, families couldn't go to hospital to visit and telephones were rare, each patient was allocated a number.

The Belfast Telegraph would then print a sheet on its inside front page giving updates on how patients with polio were doing, using the numbers to protect the identities of the patients.

Each 'number' was listed as either 'stable' or 'serious' or 'critical'. Reading the newspaper was the only way to find out how your relative or friend was doing.

One Last Push consists of people who contracted polio themselves and are still living with the effects of Post Polio Syndrome.

Post Polio Syndrome (PPS) is a neurological condition that can occur in people who have had polio.

For more details on today's event, which takes place from 8.30am-10.30am, tel: 0207 544 3602 or email: campaign@onelastpush.org.

Visit www. uk.onelastpush.org. To donate to Rotary and help end polio, visit www.endpolionow.org.

Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship, visit www.polio-ni.org.

British Polio Fellowship, tel: 0800 043 1935 or visit www.britishpolio.org.uk.

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