Polly – My Polio Story
By Pauline (Polly) Corrigan
My family arrived in Sydney Australia 17th June 1951. After a short time at a migrant camp we moved to a furnished house with an engineering job at Maroulin, NSW. The mine owners had to shoot the wild goats that had taken over the home in the meantime.
I had 3 other siblings at the time: Anne? 7, Phillip, 3.5, myself 2.5 & baby sister Gillian 1.5. It was 1 year to the day we came here on 17th June 1952. Dad was delivering a new baby on the kitchen table, while we sat on the kitchen bench with our feet in the water that flooded the house. The water was close to the bottom of the table. We thought it was fun at the time. However, I appeared to be the only child effected by getting polio. We could not reach the road for a week due to the flood waters. Mum had the baby, and I was in the wheelbarrow with my sister Gillian. I remember being in the wheelbarrow, but my next recollection was in a room full of children. Beds either side of the rooms (in Melbourne). I remember being on a wooden frame. I didn’t see my family, but they had moved to Traralgon, Vic.
When I was 5 years-old I had 11 operation on my legs to straighten them. After that I got calipers and went home. I was not expected to walk in the future, but my father had other ideas. Working with the Children’s Hospital, my father tied my feet to the workshop lathe, which had treadles as well as power. I had to treadle it – No choice. My feet were tied on with crepe bandages.
I wasn’t allowed to go to school as people still thought I was contaminated. Lack of media I presume back then. Anyway, mum left me home alone a lot, as she was the town mechanic. She used to put me on the settee, which is where I practically lived. Putting a
leather belt around me, buckling it up, then turning the buckle under the settee. On approx. 4 or 5 occasions I got bored, and wanted to go to school with my siblings. So, I reversed the belt, unbuckled it, and escaped. I had rigid calipers so had to wriggle like a snake. I almost made it across 3 major roads, which included the highway. I was picked up by the police every time, after cars just missing me on the highway. They always asked me why and my answer was always the same. I want to go to school.
By this time, I was 8 years old and they had a meeting with the school and Children’s Hospital to decide what to do with me. I don’t know who taught me, but I was a very good reader before this. We children were not allowed to touch the paper, which came early morning, but I used to go get the paper and read everything in it, roll it up and put it back in the mailbox before anyone was awake. Being a kid, they must have known.
The day came where I could go to school. The high school at that time was still at Grey Street. My big sister used to push me over the railroad bridge in a pram with my feet sticking out the end. I was very thin but quite tall for my age. At the top of the bridge Anne would run and send me down the other side, crashing every time. Sibling jealousy I believe now. Anyway, the high school moved and my brother Phillip took over taking me to the classroom. There was a big step at the door so three of the bigger boys helped get the pram inside. I caught up to my classmates in the first year. The whole school went to the theatre over the road one day. The movie was Pollyanna. A terrific story and when I came out the kids called me Pollyanna and that stuck forever. I’m back to Polly these days.
Working on the lathe for physio, I became an expert learning fitting and turning by rote. It was my dream to follow this trade. At 12 or 13 years I spent time in and out of my calipers and wheelchair until I was told at 13 I was cured and could do anything I wanted. The headmaster at the high school commissioned me to build wrought iron work for his veranda and steps. I was chuffed. Mum helped me by delivering it and helping fit it. Approximately 2 to 3 weeks later I had careers day at school and the headmaster met me walking into the hall. He asked me what I was going to do and I said ‘Fitting & Turning’ of course. Well he told me that I could not do that. Not being rude, but I was that shocked at his reply that I said, “of course I can”. He said there were no toilet facilities for girls. (Actually, I always did the books for mum & dad)
In our family we had always been told we could not leave school unless we had a job, so I walked out of that school and by the time I got home that night I had a job (Sewing). I still filled in at the workshop on weekends, after work etc. I had an issue where my left knee sometimes collapsed on me. Usually crossing the road or something similar. I just lived with that.
My first dance was when Elvis was popular. I got laughed at because it was a hard thing for me at the time. I soon got better. My legs were, and still are scarred, and I always kept them covered because I was ashamed of them. Today I don’t care. I married and had 5 children (NO LABOUR). I could never do ballroom dancing after the birth of my first child. Don’t know why. Because I was told I could do anything I started doing renovating to all our flats, houses we rented. But had to move because they got sold once I finished. I always had big veggie gardens.
I first noticed problems with my legs in about 1980. I put it down to the hard work I did or arthritis. It wasn’t until I had a knee repair in about 1987 that I was in agony and this Mr McQueen came in and said, “If I didn’t know better I would have said you had polio as a child”. Well I said, “Yes, but it’s gone”. I was told then that I must always mention this to my doctors. It still did not sink in the importance of it.
None of it was a good memory. People crossed the road when mum took me out. Trying to do things with calipers on hurt. My left knee got so bad that I had to have a neoprene sleave with a lock on it to stop going backwards. Then it started on my right knee, so same treatment. I was still not aware of what was going on. My doctor suggested going swimming, but we could never get into the pool due to schools, swimming clubs etc. So we put a heated pool in at home. While this was happening my doctor got me to have a blood test, which told me I had the late effects of polio. I was horrified, had nightmares for months about my childhood. I had to have counseling to deal with it. I graduated to calipers of different types so I could still work. I went to a walker, then a wheelchair, which is where I’m at now, but with total exhaustion. My being physically useless caused a marriage break down. As I was always the fixer, I have built 2 new houses and renovated 34 houses and sheds for the kids etc. I still travel, though in the last 2 years I have had to back off due to the exhaustion.
Going to Cairns I learnt so much. I am sure my brother, even though he never suffered as a child, I’m positive he has post polio. I am getting him to follow that up.
I am one of those people who you tell things are not possible and I always find a way. In my lifetime I have trained as a fitter and turner, became an expert (sewing) machinist. I learnt by accident really to renovate, build houses, and always looked after my own vehicles. Taught car maintenance at Monash University, also at every neighbourhood house throughout the Latrobe valley. I also taught leadlighting, sewing, macramé, home maintenance, and woodwork. I worked in disability for 25 years as well. I have not been idle until recently.