Ulster man who contracted polio as child tells his story

Bobby Doherty
Bobby Doherty

In 1949 at six years of age I contracted the Polio virus. At that time it was probably more commonly known as Infantile Paralysis.

I well remember my father taking me to the GP’s surgery on a pleasant Friday evening but the surgery was closed when we got there.

On the way home my father asked me how I was feeling and I apparently said my legs were tired.

On the following Monday after a request for a house visit our family doctor arrived and after examining me he tickled my left foot and got no response.

He then said he would return in an hour either with a consultant medical practitioner or an ambulance.

Within the hour I was in the ambulance on the way to the Purdysburn Fever Hospital where I was put in an isolation ward.

Three months later I was transferred to Musgrave Park Hospital. There I was put in a plaster cast from the chest to my ankles and remained immobilised for the next eight months.

It subsequently transpired that this was the exact opposite of what should have happened because it was discovered that movement and exercise to rebuild muscle memory was the best form of treatment and provided a better opportunity for recovery or certainly reduced paralysis.

After spending 12 months in hospital I was discharged. I was paralysed in both legs and was equipped with calipers – or leg braces as they were sometimes known – to help me walk.

I have now worn calipers for some 67 years. The most remarkable thing about the calipers is that their construction has changed very little in the intervening years.

One of the effects of the paralysis was to seriously weaken my lower leg muscles which resulted in my feet always pointing to the ground like a ballet dancer pose. This condition was known as “dropped foot”.

To deal with this my shoes were equipped with fittings to keep my feet upright.

To solve this condition when I reached 13 years of age, the eminent consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Mr Bob Wilson, operated on each of my feet.

He removed a wedge of bone from each foot and restored the foot to a more normal position with metal pins. I left hospital after six months and the surgery proved to be very successful.

I spent another six months in the Belfast City Hospital with a broken femur which happened due to a fall.

All in all I missed about two years formal schooling which required quite a bit of catching up.

I have been lucky enough to lead a very active life and have not felt greatly hindered by my disability.

The one occasion when it did come to the fore was when I was unable to take part fully in all my children’s activities. However, this was a rare experience.

I was monitored by the Health Service until I reached 18 years of age. Since then my involvement has really been the occasions when I needed calipers repaired or renewing.

In my early teens my father took me to see a Mr Aaron Currie, swimming instructor, at the Templemore Avenue Swimming Baths.

This was one of the best things to ever happen to me. After six months of lessons I was able to go solo and I have been a regular swimmer ever since.

I attribute my physical ability to do many things in life to the fact that the exercise provided through swimming has kept me mobile.

I commenced my working life in the printing industry before joining the Northern Ireland Civil Service. I retired from the Civil Service in 2004 after a full and satisfying career, which included the last 10 years as a director in the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Office. I can say without fear of contradiction that my disability did not prove to be a hindrance in any way.

However, while the Polio virus may be eradicated in the United Kingdom the effects of the virus are still with us.

It has been found that some 20 to 30 years after first catching the virus many survivors are now experiencing the return of their symptoms with further muscle weakness, fatigue, painful joints, breathing difficulties etc.

The problem now is that because it is some 30 years since the last recorded case of Polio in the UK the knowledge base of those in the health care professions – including medical practitioners – has been greatly eroded.

Sterling work is being done by the British Polio Fellowship, a charity which exists to support Polio survivors and campaign on issues affecting the members.

The NI Polio Fellowship, which is a registered charity for local Polio survivors is playing a full part in the campaign to increase the awareness of this condition known as Post Polio Syndrome.

For example, the British Polio Fellowship in association with the NI Polio Fellowship, recently held an event in the Long Gallery in Stormont hosted by the Minister of Finance Martin O’Muilleoir and Mr Sammy Douglas MLA, to heighten awareness of Post Polio Syndrome. Similar events have been held in Westminster and the Welsh Assembly.

It is estimated there are 120,000 Polio survivors in the UK and of these perhaps 80% suffer from Post Polio Syndrome. The challenge is to have put in place agreed diagnosis and management regimes. This is where the British Polio Fellowship is leading the way.

- For more information on the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship email: info@polio-ni.org