The Horrors of Polio

The Independent has an essay from Patrick Cockburn who was stricken with polio during the summer of 1956. In addition to being a sobering first-person account of what it was like to carry the debilitating disease, the essay also contains some insights into the nature of the polio outbreak, and why some areas were more prone to outbreak than others:

I have no memory of realising that I could no longer walk, still less that this might be permanent. The poliomyelitis virus, to give the disease its full name, attacks the nerves of the brain and spinal cord leading to paralysis of the muscles. Some shrivel and die. In other cases the nerves are only stunned and can be brought back to life by courses of physical exercise over a two-year period. After three weeks at St Finbarr’s I was sent to an orthopaedic hospital at Gurranebraher, on a hill overlooking Cork. It was a horrible place. Its single-storey isolation blocks had been built for TB patients and rapidly converted for use in the polio epidemic. I was lonely because Andrew had recovered and gone home, only his big toe affected by the disease. The nurses maintained a gruff, barrack- room discipline. One night I woke up and heard a nurse telling a small boy who had messed his bed that if he did it again he would have to eat his own excreta. Afterwards I had difficulty sleeping because I was frightened the same thing would happen to me.

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