Serious poliomyelitis epidemics swept the world between 1938 and 1954. Australia, and Western Australia in particular, were affected.
Joan London’s beautifully written novel, The Golden Age is an account of children who had contracted poliomyelitis and their families. (Review here.) The children who populate the novel are residents in a convalescent home called the Golden Age, which actually existed in Perth in the 1950s.
Reading the novel and reviewing it for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 prompted me to examine some of my own memories of that time in Perth. The poliomyelitis epidemics influenced many aspects of life in my home town. Everyone seemed to know someone who had contracted polio.
According to some sources, in Australia between 1950 and 1954, there were around 12,000 cases of the disease. The death toll reached over 680. Sparcely populated at that time, Western Australia had a disproportionate incidence of the disease.
Poliomyelitis is a viral disease spread from person to person through the faecal-oral route. The virus can invade a person’s brain and spinal cord. It can cause anything from minor paralysis to death in the most severe cases.
Poliomyelitis epidemics were halted in affluent countries, with the discovery and application of the Salk vaccine. The vaccine was administered to whole populations, beginning in 1955. Poliomyelitis epidemics have been almost eradicated worldwide. Pockets of the disease still exist. Work to end the scourge completely continues.
Although poliomyelitis was once called ‘infantile paralysis’, it also affected young adults in large numbers. As a seventeen-year-old trainee nurse I did a three-month stint at an adult infectious diseases hospital at the height of the last of the polio epidemics.
Those three months may well have been the most horrific part of my nursing training.
We young nurses were responsible for the care of people our own age and slightly older who were in so called ‘iron lungs’.These were steel tanks which enclosed the patient’s body, leaving only his or her head outside. Machinery on the outside of the building caused pressure to be built up inside each of the tanks and released. This forced the patients’ lungs to contract and expand. Iron lungs have long since been replaced by modern ventilators.
In the middle of a terrifying electrical storm one night, the electricity was cut. Joan London writes about ‘nurses in shortie pyjamas’ who came from the nurses quarters nearby to keep the iron lungs working, and this may well have happened on some occasions..
My own experience however, was that some on-duty nurses were sent outside the ward. There we manually pumped the crude bellows-like equipment that would keep our patients alive for as long as we were needed.
Our patients were young men and women we knew intimately and cared about. Their lives depended on us, humans, rather than reliable, predictable machines to maintain the regular rhythm, sixteen times a minute, that mimicked breathing. Fear levels inside and out were high.
The storm raged around us. The rain beat in on the verandah.
By the time the petrol fired generator had been started and begun to generate a reliable source of electricity, we were soaked to the skin and exhausted with the physical and emotional effort. But of course we dried ourselves off as well as we could, and continued our shifts. We’d done nothing more than what was expected of us.
The poliomyelitis epidemics created enormous fear in the community. People affected by the disease and their families were looked down on as somehow responsible for their plight. Victim-blaming was rife.
Many families of nurses refused to allow their daughters (trainee nurses were women!) to visit or spend time with them. My mother, who usually insisted I went home for my day-and-a-half off duty each week, said she would prefer not to see me for the three months I worked at the Infectious Disease Branch of Royal Perth Hospital. She was afraid I might carry the virus to my siblings and infect them.
Confined to the nurses quarters, like many other nurses, I became adept at playing wheelchair basketball with the young men who were convalescing from earlier outbreaks of polio. They showed little mercy to their competitors, male or female. We spent a lot of time on the ground after being spilled from a chair by too vigorous bumps. We went to work patched up with sticky plaster over our wounded knees and elbows.
An annex of Royal Perth Hospital, the Infectious Disease Branch was built in bush-land in Shenton Park. Built at the end of the nineteenth century when a smallpox epidemic hit Western Australia, the IDB was isolated from other habitation. It was also, tellingly,no more than half a mile from Karrakatta Cemetery.
We trainee nurses slept in barrack-like out-buildings in the grounds of the IDB. Our bedroom doors opened onto the long verandas at the side facing the bush which many of us found scary. There may have been locks on the doors. I don’t remember. But I imagine I wasn’t the only young nurse to return to her room late at night, tired after a full day’s work to find a drunken stranger lying on her bed.
Probably, like me, they didn’t know if there was an authority to which they could complain. Perhaps, like me, they also spent the night on the floor of the room of a colleague before returning to work early the next morning.
The Infectious Disease Branch of Royal Perth Hospital became the Shenton Park Rehabilitation Centre after the poliomyelitis epidemics subsided. The Centre was closed in October, 2014. No doubt the ramshackle buildings will soon be demolished to make way for another housing estate.
Shenton Park, once the site of a group of huts that struck terror into the people of Perth has been transformed into fashionable inner city suburb.
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