Belfast man remembers NI’s polio epidemic, 60 years on

Eddie, aged 13, on Ballyholme Beach in 1965, before he was 'stretched'
Eddie, aged 13, on Ballyholme Beach in 1965, before he was 'stretched'

In 1957 Northern Ireland was hit with a polio epidemic, with 297 people being struck down by the debilitating disease.

Sixty years on, one of the those people – Eddie McCrory, who was a child of just five when he contracted polio – has told of the impact it has had on his life from his early years in calipers to the permanent curvature of his spine.

Eddie and with his wife Susan and their children Cormac, Caoimhe and Aiofe

Eddie and with his wife Susan and their children Cormac, Caoimhe and Aiofe

The 65-year-old retired civil servant from Belfast has kept an extremely positive outlook on life despite the limitations the disease imposed on his childhood.

He said: “It didn’t have that much of an effect at primary school, though obviously when we were out playing hide-and-seek I was always the first one caught because I couldn’t run.

“But I still joined in with games and went to normal schools. I got a bit more conscious as I got older that people were looking at me.

“The Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship was a big help and I met a lot of people in the same situation as me who I’ve known through life.

Eddie on Polio Fellowship trip to Portrush in 1963

Eddie on Polio Fellowship trip to Portrush in 1963

“I went on to do my GCSEs, join the civil service, get married and have three children – so I just got on with it.”

Eddie recalled the moment he realised he had contracted the infection, which causes muscle weakness.

He said: “I took it just a couple of days after my fifth birthday in July 1957. Our next-door neighbour let me have a ride on his bike and when I got on I couldn’t push the pedals. That’s when my parents knew there was something wrong.”

He was initially sent to bed with suspected flu, but then was transferred to Belvoir Park Hospital where he spent six weeks in an isolation ward.

Calling all Polio Survivors to come forward are: District Governor, Garth Arnold, Rotary Ireland, Eddie McCrory, Polio Survivor with Rosemary Simpson, President of  Rotary Cub of Belfast

Calling all Polio Survivors to come forward are: District Governor, Garth Arnold, Rotary Ireland, Eddie McCrory, Polio Survivor with Rosemary Simpson, President of Rotary Cub of Belfast

He said: “I remember lying there, unable to move. My parents had to stand outside and just look through the glass.”

He was transferred to Greenisland Orthopaedic Hospital where he stayed for nearly a year for physiotherapy to strengthen his muscles.

Eddie was to be treated as an out-patient for a further six years and wore two calipers and a brace until he was 10.

He said: “At night I had to sleep in a cast of myself, a bit like a mummy with bandages wrapped around me to keep me in shape.”

When the brace and calipers were removed, Eddie remained ‘straight’ up until the age of 13 when an adolescent growth spurt caused his spine to curve.

A year later, doctors decided he needed to be ‘stretched’ .

Eddie recalled: “It was just like the old medieval rack. They put plaster of Paris round my hips and around my shoulders, and when it hardened you were laid on a rack and things were attached to either end of the plaster of Paris and turned until you could take no more and then they put plaster round the middle to harden.

“That stayed on for three weeks then it came off and you went through the same again.”

At the end of the procedure Eddie was due to have rods attached to his spine but refused the further operation, instead getting a ‘Milwaukee brace’ worn up to his chin.

When the brace came off in his twenties, his spine ‘bent’ again. “I wasn’t going through all that again so I just lived with it,” he said.

Up until the 1980s, polio was still paralysing children in the UK. Now, globally the number of cases is in steep decline with polio now only endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

UPCOMING EVENT:

Rotary and The One Last Push campaign will co-host an event on Tuesday, December 5, at Belfast Castle to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Belfast polio outbreak of 1957.

Rosemary Simpson, president of Rotary Club Belfast, said: “We hope the event will bring together those living with the long-term effects of the disease, as well as remembering the heroic efforts of all who were affected or connected with the epidemic.”

Polio survivor Eddie added: “It’s brilliant we can be so close to ending polio.

“But we need one last push to rid the world of it completely.”