Polio Survivor – Elizabeth from NSW
MY POLIO STORY
My name is Elizabeth BRAND. I was born March 1940 in Rotterdam, Holland. Six weeks later war broke out. The first bombs fell 1 kilometre from our home and my parents were forced to flee while Rotterdam continued to be bombed.
Miraculously our home remained standing but our lives changed. My parents lived in fear and as I grew up my home became my world. I was not allowed to play outside and the only time I tasted freedom was when we visited my grandparents after church on Sunday when I could explore their large home and run up and down the stairs to visit my greataunt. One afternoon as the adults were talking, I sneaked away and went outside. Freedom at last! I was 2 ½ years old.
My parents were frantic until they found me playing in the public sandpit. Shortly after this I fell ill and complained about pain in my left leg. My mother dismissed it as just an attention getter, however the doctor instantly admitted me to the hospital where I was diagnosed with polio. I felt guilty and blamed myself. I believed it was my punishment for having been disobedient.
Soon the rest of my body became paralysed and when I started having trouble breathing I was placed in a humidity crib alongside 5 other small children. I was the only one to survive. More guilt.
When I started to recover my specialist decided to use me as a guinea pig for a new treatment he had heard about, Sr. Kenny’s method, from Australia! I was placed in a corridor and each nurse who passed me was ordered to manipulate my body. It was very painful and I dreaded anyone coming near me.
The hospital was under constant threat of being bombed and after a few weeks my mother insisted on taking me home. If anything happened she wanted us to die together.
From that time on Ma continued with the stretching and massaging and three times a week she put me in a pusher and walked for kilometres to get me to a specialist on the other side of the city. The journey was hazardous and we were forced to run from air-raid shelter to air-raid shelter. When we arrived I received electrical impulse stimulation to my wasted muscles. It was very frightening and I cried each time.
At the end of 1944 the situation in Rotterdam became desperate. There was little food and the electricity supply stopped. So did my massage. I had regained the use of most of my muscles except for the bottom half of my left leg. However my foot was twisted upwards since my Achilles tendon had wasted away and I was forced to walk on my heel since my toes were still paralysed. I vividly remember how I hated walking around the dining table five times each night. There were no excuses. I deserved the punishment.
In November 1944 two things happened. My father was taken away to a concentration camp and my mother was forced to billet two German soldiers. One night the young SS soldier put his revolver against my face and threatened to kill me because I was handicapped. The older soldier pushed me away and I “ran” to hide behind my mother. The incident was never talked about but from that time on I pretended my body was not mine and I stopped feeling my emotions.
From that time on I saw my original specialist every three months. Often I was asked to walk in front of a gathering of specialists from different countries as an example of what could be achieved with the right kind of treatment e.g Sr. Kenny’s method.
My treatment was swimming for six months of the year even though the water often was near freezing! An operation when I was 8 years old finally allowed me to wear surgical boots and enabled me to walk short distances but it was not till I was 16 that I was able to walk more than a few kilometres. By then I was working as a computer operator in a large office. When I was 19 years old I married and three days later we set sail for Australia. We landed in Perth, West Australia. From that time on I did not see a specialist, I could not afford surgical boots nor could I afford to go for a regular swim. I adapted thongs as my foot wear and managed the best I could. In the following years I moved 35 times, had five children, worked as a hotel maid, a child care worker, a personal carer of physical and mentally handicapped children and adults, and a home care worker as well as working as a volunteer in several areas.
I was 48 years old when my husband, who had became a soldier in the Australian Army, left me to look for “peace”. Shortly afterwards my war-time memories returned and I was forced to deal with my past. At the same time I found work as a personal carer in Aged Care. When I was 59 years old I could not longer continue in my job. Being on my feet for up to 8 hours a day reduced me to tears. I was put on a disability pension and continued as co-ordinator of the local soup kitchen, driver of a team taking people to doctor and specialists appointments up to 250 kilometres away and facilitator for self-help groups as well as telephone counsellor.
Recently most of those activities have become too difficult for my physical condition. I now am part of a singing group, entertaining people in aged care facilities and other functions. I’m also part of a choir. The remainder of my time is spent painting, attending art classes and researching family history. Whenever possible and affordable I make a trip to Brisbane or Sydney to visit my children. I’m proud of them and was elated when one of my daughters rang me up to tell me about a seminar she had attended. The seminar was about handicapped people and their needs. Apparently it was a revelation to her that I was classed as a handicapped person!
Six years ago I managed to get my fist pair of surgical boots and this has made my life a lot easier. I have since received another pair, however walking is still not one of my favourite activities. I now need some help doing the housework, mainly because of increased tiredness.
Looking back over my life I realise that I have been more affected by the emotional circumstances of having polio than the actual disease itself. Dealing with my feelings has been more painful than I could ever have believed but I now feel free to enjoy life, a life without guilt or shame.