John Baldwin contracted polio aged 9, in February 1948, before a vaccine had been found. For quite some time John was left paralysed from the chest down and his memories of that time have never left him. Here he tells his polio story.
For me, 1948 started out like any other year, with a hard winter and snow. We went back to school after the Christmas holidays, and by February I had a bad cold, which developed into Bronchitis. The doctor prescribed cough mixture and to stay warm.
On 29 February 1948, I got up in the night, but my legs didn’t work. I fell on the floor, crawled back into bed and went to sleep. The next morning I couldn’t move. Mum fed me breakfast, then went up to the call box to ring the doctor. It took about an hour because there was a queue.
Dr Arthur came and rang for an ambulance. I was carried down in my night clothes and taken in a brown ambulance to the fever hospital (Watford Isolation Hospital). I wasn’t sure where that was. When I got there, a doctor, and a lot of nurses examined me and gave me injections (penicillin). To get me to wee they gave me another type of injection, but no luck.
By this time I was missing my mum and was quite tearful. They told me I must be brave and that my mum couldn’t come for a long time because I was infectious and had to be on my own. This made me even more tearful, but a nice nurse cuddled me, and I went to sleep.
I had four hourly injections through the night and day. They told me to keep still, and I had sandbags all
round my legs and body and up against my feet.
I couldn’t wee, so Dr Gough fitted a catheter and that hurt a lot. I also had to have an enema to opened my bowels and was lifted up by a sort of crane. It took a while, but it finally worked.
Each day they prodded me with needles to see if I could feel anything. My cough came back, so my breathing wasn’t good. An Iron Lung was put outside my room, in case it was needed. It looked like a submarine with windows, and I just thought to myself, ‘I’m not going in that’.
Sunday came and so did my mum, but she couldn’t come in to see me. She had to stay in the passage outside. I couldn’t hear her and so she only stayed an hour. That upset me so much.
There was of course, no NHS in 1948. The hospital would have been run by Watford Borough Council and you could be charged for treatment. Dr Pearson, the Medical Officer for Health for Watford visited me twice a week. My GP, Dr Aldridge visited me once a week. The Matron visited me every morning with a Staff nurse and Sister. Nurse Capel was my nurse, and we got on well.
After a few weeks, they checked to see if I could move my toes. They wanted to get me into the bath, so a sort of crane was used, and I was wheeled to the bathroom and lowered onto a sheet across a big bath full of water. This was great for me, but a load of work for the nurses.
The same routine continued day after day: washing on the bed, laying on my back to be fed, drinking from a cup with a spout held by my nurse and being lifted to open my bowels. All the staff had to change their clothing in the lobby before they came into my room, then again when they left.
I had gained a radio set which was tuned into the BBC Light Program. I enjoyed it a lot: Dick Barton each evening and Up the Pole once a week, Toy Town on Children’s Hour, and music all day. I also had loads of comics and books sent to me from my friends and relations.
My tenth birthday came and went. I was only allowed cards and to see my mother though the glass.
I discovered I could move my toe on my right foot. They told me not to keep doing it, but I did, when they weren’t there. I even got my leg out of the bed and wiggled my foot. They told me off.
One day they got me out of bed to see what my legs could do. Two nurses held me up and I could sort of stand, but if my leg was lifted my foot dropped down. This was done every day and slowly I could walk a step or two, but my feet dropped. I was given ankle exercises to do on the bed.
Eventually my catheter came out (by the heck that hurt a lot, because it was a metal tube) and the injections came down to every eight hours. By the end of May I was walking quite a few steps without my feet dropping. I had to take my time and only needed the help of one nurse.
I built up a friendship with the boiler man through the window. He would have got into trouble if they had seen him, so we had to be careful. I was also supplying the birds with cotton wool for nesting materials. They would take it from my hands if I stayed still.
I walked round my room very slowly when I could and without the nurses knowing. It made me very tired of course, but I was slowly improving. I still had the same visits from the doctors, my GP and matron every week, and my poor mum still outside in the corridor. Dad came when he could. It wasn’t easy to get to the hospital, buses only ran on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday afternoons from Watford town centre.
By the summer of 1948, they had stopped the injections and I was exercising twice a day and doing well but I couldn’t go home until my blood tests showed clear of the polio virus.
At last, my mum was called into the office to discuss my going home. Miss Clarke was to come weekly to massage my poor legs. There was an outpatient appointment with Dr Jones at Shrodells Hospital in Watford in six weeks and a weekly visit to my GP, Dr Aldridge on Saturday mornings to check my weight and bladder emptying. These visits continued until I went back to school.
At home I could have a cuddle, be in my own bed and stroke my dog, Sam again. I felt very vulnerable out of hospital. A walk to get my hair cut took about an hour, with rests instead of the usual five minutes. I did fall over a lot when I got tired, but it was good to be home again.
I don’t know where the polio came from. The milk at school was blamed, but we had played in an old wartime water storage tank that had stagnant water inside, before Christmas.
My GP wasn’t keen for me to go back to school in September, so I only did half days. It made me very tired, and I got through a lot of shoes because I dragged my feet, but I stuck it out.
In September 1949, aged eleven I went up to the secondary school. I got no sympathy there from the teachers, in fact they were quite spiteful to me at times. I had four years to catch up on my education. No more games and PT for me, just work hard at whatever I could do. Dr Aldridge didn’t want me to do full-time schooling, but I did it and I got an evening job selling papers by the time I was thirteen. I needed to prove to myself that a normal life lay ahead.
I became an electrician, but since retiring in 1997 I have developed Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS). Medical staff today, just don’t seem to understand PPS, and it gets very tedious explaining my different body needs and reactions. They always jump to conclusions and aren’t prepared to listen.
PPS is becoming more of a nuisance. I have a permanent catheter and walking difficulties, but I keep plodding on. There’ll be more surprises round the corner.