Growing up with Polio in Australia in the 1950s – by Dr John Tierney
Dr John Tierney OAM PhD
National Patron and former President of Polio Australia
In the 2012 Australia Day Awards, John was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM); for service to the Parliament of Australia, to education, and to the community.
John Tierney gave 14 years of distinguished service to the Australian Parliament, where he served as a Federal Senator. During his time in Parliament, he was a Shadow Parliamentary Secretary and also chaired a number of Senate Standing and Select Committees over a range of portfolio areas.
John has taken a passionate interest in the area of disability, having contracted Polio at birth, and was a special parliamentary adviser to the Minister for Community Services on disability matters.
Whilst in the Senate he served on the Council of the National Library of Australia & the Council of the Australian National University. Senator Tierney also led Australian Parliamentary delegations to South Africa, Nigeria, The European Union and the United Nations in New York where he addressed the General Assembly of the UN in 2004.
Prior to entering the Senate Dr. Tierney was Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle, and Chairman & Patron of St Phillips Christian College. John holds the degrees of PhD, MEd & BEc from the Universities of Sydney and Newcastle.
John has undertaken pro bono government advisory work for Lifeline Australia (National Patron (2005-11) & Polio Australia, (National Patron since 2010 and National President 2012-17).
John and Pam have been married for 50 years and live in Newcastle East. They have six children and almost eight grandchildren – so far.
Growing up with Polio in Australia in the 1950s by Dr John Tierney
On a hot January afternoon in 1946, the country doctor hurried from attending a polio case at a home in Cooma, to the local hospital to deliver me. Ten years before the Salk vaccine became available, he brought with him the poliovirus on his fingers. It was a pity that he didn’t wash his hand more thoroughly! Ten thoughtless seconds dramatically switched the direction of my future life path, to one of slow deteriorating physical disability over seventy-plus years – so far. I spent my first three weeks of life in the hospital, strapped to a board placed at a 45-degree angle to assist my breathing. The poliovirus attacks the nervous system and disables, in varying degrees, the muscle movements that the nerves control.
Only people over seventy years old now would recall the terror that families felt during the polio epidemics that blighted Australia about every ten years between 1910 and 1960, before the widespread use of the Salk vaccine. The poliovirus presents like flu, but overnight it can do irreversible damage to the body’s nerves, muscles and eventually joints. The fear of the spread of polio in the Australian population in the first half of the 20th century was like the fear that is currently generated by the Ebola virus in Africa.
I was born into a family of athletes when I contracted this condition. My mother was a Riverina region athletics champion. My brother Jeff carried the Olympic torch on the road to Melbourne in 1956. My other brother, Michael, was an even better athlete and with minimum practice took out many Blues at the regional sports carnivals every year that we were at high school. There is a family photo which shows my brother Michael wearing a chest full of blue and red ribbons. In my entire ‘athletics career’, I managed one yellow ribbon (with nothing written on it). I think that I received this award for having a go, and it was presented to me at the Eden District sports carnival in 1951, when I finished well behind the field, in the five year old 100-yard dash.
More than 50 years later, I received a letter from a man who had watched me run in that race on the south coast of NSW, all those years ago. What had caught the crowd’s attention, it seems, was that I took part in the race with a caliper strapped onto my polio leg. This wasn’t made of light titanium steel, but of railway track grade iron! ‘You came a very bad last’, he wrote, ‘but you were first in the hearts of all those who watched’.
My parents allowed me to be in the race as part of their ‘normalisation’ program. My two elder brothers also took up this cause with great gusto. As a six year old they gave me the job of ‘chief mole’ to test if my older brothers new hand-made underground tunnel, which was dug to connect two cubby house caverns, was wide enough. As one brother pushed from one end and the other pulled from the other, I became stuck in my earth tomb. This must have created PTSD, as I can still vividly recall the smell and feel of fresh earth all around my head and body.
In my 1950’s childhood, hospitals were part of an annual routine for tracking my ongoing disability caused by polio. I was one of the lucky ones because I only went for checkups. Many years later, I heard horror stories from fellow polio survivors who had been kept in hospitals for years of ongoing therapy. Some of it, such as the use of the notorious Double Thomas Splint (a diagonal cross shape), was designed to keep the child’s body limbs immobilized and straight. Medieval torture chambers would have been proud of such an invention. Also, in the polio children’s wards, parental visits were often not encouraged because, for these preschool children, it was felt that the departures of the parents after the visits could be ‘upsetting’.
I was unaware of such horrors, as I made my pilgrimage from Eden, on the far south coast of NSW, to the Camperdown Children’s Hospital in Sydney for my annual checkups. I still recall vividly entering that hospital, with its squeaky green lino and the ever present smell of disinfectant. The visits through the wards containing dozens of young polio survivors were traumatic. Many were in iron lungs. The luckier ones were immobilized in hospital beds. Each year the doctors would lay me on a couch, and measure the length and dimensions of my limbs, and compare these readings to those taken in previous years. This was done to track the ongoing development of my disability.
There were, however, some useful techniques for stopping the limbs becoming more distorted, but these were uncomfortable, painful and sometimes had long-lasting effects. Even now, at night, I never sleep on my back. Why? Because between the ages of two and seven, I had to sleep in this position with my left leg in a fitted plaster cast. Why was it necessary to put this instrument of torture on every night? When polio strikes, it kills off many of the nerve connections which innervate the muscles. The resulting muscle contracture can affect joints, ligaments and tendons, distorting the skeletal frame. During the day, to also assist with keeping the leg straight, I wore an iron calliper on my left leg until the age of 12.
Given my situation, I am amazed at the success of my parents’ normalisation program. I joined in with the rest of my tennis-mad family and won several trophies even though I couldn’t move very fast. How? I had one good limb, my right arm, that was not affected by polio. I learnt to hit a tennis ball very hard and accurately to the corners of the tennis court. My opponents would run frantically back and forth across the court while up my end I would just trot around the middle delivering my winning shots.
So what else could I do? I joined the scouts and gained many badges for acquiring a wide range of skills. I eventually took out the Queen’s Scout Award. Also, during this time, I turned my attention to where I could excel, and that was in the world of ideas. I left high school with the choice of a number of university scholarships and at 23 was appointed the youngest lecturer in the state.
However, with my love of ideas, I was also drawn to the world of politics, and at the age of fourteen set my sights on the Australian Senate, where I took up my seat 31 years later, aged 45. Around that time I was developing back trouble, and an MRI scan revealed that I was developing the Late Effects of Polio (LEoP). In 1994, the scan revealed: spinal scoliosis, collapsing disks in the lumbar region, arthritis, spinal stenosis, and three bone spurs growing into the spinal canal, giving the spinal cord at these points very little wriggle room.
Polio bodies deteriorate at two to six percent a year. Where you are on this spectrum depends a lot on how you exercise. For the last fifteen years I have stayed on the 2% side, by doing 30 minutes of gentle hydrotherapy three times a week. But I have come across people at the other end of the spectrum. After speaking at the Nelson Bay Rotary Club in 2016, a sixty-five year old man came up to me and said that he had LEoP. ‘What do you do for exercise?’ I enquired. ‘I’m a yachtie’, he proclaimed proudly. ‘Most weekends I am out on the big boats off Port Stephens, working the sail coffee grinders’. This is heavy exercise, of course, which would put him on the 6%-a-year side of the LEoP spectrum. ‘Could I suggest that you stop doing that?’ I said with some alarm.
I would have loved to have sailed like that Rotarian, or skied like my father, or played golf twice a week into my 70’s like my eldest brother, or gone a lot further in championship tennis. Dancing has been another big gap. Pam, my wife of 50 years, is a very accomplished dancer. She really drew the short straw with me! I do have the occasional dance at special functions, but this is rare, and I only last about five minutes. Now, every time I leave the floor, I think that was my last dance.
As a result of polio, there have been some very large gaps in my life, but we play the cards that we are dealt. Sometimes, but not often, I reflect on what might have been. I am not a vengeful person, but if I could find that careless doctor who delivered me in 1946, I would sue the bastard!