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Polio epidemic remembered

‘Poliomyelitis was greatly feared’.

At 72, Marshall Hyland still remembers the exact date and what he was doing when, as an eight-year-old growing up in Gisborne, he suddenly fell ill with polio. The memory of it is etched on his mind, he says. Marshall had bulbar paralytic poliomyelitis — the most severe of three types of polio. He revisits the experience, for our readers, from his Whakatane home during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“It was Friday night, the fourth of November, 1955 — I was playing cricket in our backyard with a neighbour and I felt feverish, like I was getting the ‘flu so mum put me to bed and I was in bed all day Saturday.

“On Sunday morning, she brought me a cup of tea and I went to drink it but couldn't swallow. It all came out my nose.

“So, the doctor got called and the next thing I was taken up to Cook Hospital and straight into the medical superintendent Mr Hall's office. He said I had polio so I went straight down to the polio ward. I was lucky not to have the painful lumbar puncture most other people had to diagnose polio.

“I went in on Sunday November 6 and I came out on December 5. Those days are etched in my mind. The polio ward was in the south east corner of Cook Hospital. You went in there and you stayed there, with no visitors, until you came out ‘one way or the other'.

“There were probably 20 patients in the main ward and half a dozen in the side ward and the end ward. It was full of oldies. Most of the oldies got badly paralysed. The young ones seemed to escape the paralysis externally — fortunately.

“I remember the first week being in bed right under the nurses' noses and the occasional poke and prod and visits from nurses and doctors, but I was largely asleep or unconscious.

“The second week, I got moved into the ward. That week there was a tap on the window and, lo and behold, it was my father bringing me books from home. Other than that, there weren't any visitors while I was in there — I don't think visitors were allowed.

“One of the touching things I got in hospital in the polio ward was a letter written by each person in our class, which was fantastic —that was a lovely memory.

“As we got better, we were moved into side wards. Then we were taken outside on our hospital beds and our pyjamas were opened up, and we lay in the sun for an hour — obviously to get some sun tan on us.

“I remember my first bath because it was burning hot but it was a lovely feeling having a first bath. That was probably about the third week.

“I remember the daily doctor's visits because they were like little Gods then. All the nurses would be scurrying around about 9am and everyone would be made ready with the blankets pulled down on the beds. The doctors didn't talk to us. They'd talk to each other about us and then move to the next bed.

“Down the end of the ward there were about half a dozen young boys. We thought we were fit and rearing to go. We were always wanting to get up. Two nurses would have to stop us. One of them would literally hold us down while the other reached in and took our pyjama pants off. That stopped us getting up!

“I tested one nurse so much she said, ‘Alright, if you want to get out of bed, get out of bed,' so I turned around and jumped out of bed and of course crashed to the floor and kept on going . . . ‘cos my legs had lost all feeling.

“Then we had that fairly painful process of the very, very, hot blanket wrapped in rubber. It was put around your legs and ooh, that hurt, but it got some feeling back in them.

“Because you were constipated, face down you had ice cubes stuck up your bum and oil poured in through a funnel to get the old bowels moving.

“When I finally left hospital, I used to go back there every second day to get some rather painful physiotherapy for my back.

“There are three strains of polio — I had the worst one which is called bulbar paralytic poliomyelitis. I had it in my throat, my spine, and my brain stem. I don't know how I got it. My younger sister was nursed at home with polio a couple of weeks before I got it but she had a different strain. I think I was about one of three at Awapuni Primary School who got the polio.

“The last polio epidemic in New Zealand was in 1955-1956. Polio was greatly feared, even though that wasn't evident to me as an eight-year-old in 1955.

“I attended the 100th anniversary of Motu School many years ago and a booklet I've got from the celebration has extracts from the various school diaries. It shows probably about every three or four years the school would be shut and the district shut down because of polio again.”

‘Poliomyelitis was greatly feared’

Marshall says he never felt stigmatised from having polio but many sufferers were.

“I think that was more the people who got it in arms and legs and who were partly disabled. Unfortunately in New Zealand, there was always that undercurrent of, ‘they're different from us, you know, from the mainstream population'.

“What I got from the illness was a stiffness in my lower back. I can't bend backwards very far and that changed my walking gait a wee bit. I'm sort of a bit stiff there but it hasn't stopped me from an active tramping life.

“But I think probably because of the damage the polio did to the vagus nerve, which sort of connects up all your body functions, I've never been able to get fully fit like my fellow trampers, so I was always sort of over-exerting myself to keep up and get ahead. You tend to pay a price for that later in life. But certainly, the pleasures of tramping were more than worthwhile.

“A positive thing I got from having had the polio in my throat was a beautiful musical life. The (medical) thinking back then was that by exercising the throat it would strengthen the weak muscles but that, of course, was what led later on to the overuse of the remaining muscles with the post-polio problem.

“However, I got trained up as a boy soprano to strengthen my throat — then I joined the Gisborne municipal band and I spent 10 years with them . . . in the guise of throat exercise, but it gave me a lovely musically singing time for the rest of my life.

“I've had to give it up now to ease the pressure on my throat. It's getting a bit too much but it's been a lifetime of musical pleasure.”

Marshall suffers regularly from laryngospasms, which he says can be frightening.

“Your larynx just locks up with the slightest stimulation from food or saliva.

“As well as that, for the last 15 years, about every six weeks, I've been getting a feeling of catching the flu. I think that's the post-polio syndrome they talk about kicking in — if I get run down or get a cold or something.”

Marshall never joined a polio support group but has looked at their web pages and once contacted another survivor who was able to lend him some reassurance.

“I was starting to get the larynx spasms quite a lot and I heard people in operations died from larynx spasms so I looked up a post-polio website and phoned someone in Blenheim. She assured me that she got them and she still had time, even though struggling for breath, to ring the ambulance before she lost consciousness. I took a bit of solace from that and thought, well if the worst comes to worst, I can ring the ambulance and won't be dead before they come. It's funny how you think about these things — in a strange sort of way I took comfort from that.

“The other thing I've noticed over the last few years, that I used to read about and poo-hoo a wee bit, is the intolerance to cold but I really notice that now. It's almost painful getting into the shower now unless the water's quite hot. It quite surprises me.”

Marshall doesn't recall ever seeing an iron lung in the general ward at Cook Hospital but was sure they were probably in use there somewhere.

“I remember walking down one of the streets in Gisborne the following year and they had one set up in a shop window. That was a sobering thing to look at. It was probably there to remind the public to be vigilant, or just as a curiosity piece at that stage.

“A lot of people who got bulbar polio and had breathing difficulties were put on the iron lung. But what they don't tell you is the majority of the people in the iron lung actually died — they choked because they couldn't clear the mucus from their throat and lungs. They were lying on their backs and just choking in their own mucus. Before it was realised, it was too late. One or two survived for many years but I think that was more the exception.”

Marshall recalls he was still a student at Awapuni School when polio vaccines were first introduced.

“It was probably a couple of years later. Very fortunately, I didn't have to have one, given my immunity, but I had to take a note to school from my parents and doctor. I remember the queues of kids lined up and quite a few of them fainting and getting quite hysterical. It was in the newspaper about it because it was a huge needle.

“I think they gave the injections once and then fortunately the Sabin oral vaccination came along.”

Before he retired, Marshall spent 12 years in Civil Defence Emergency Management in Porirua. That position saw him involved in pandemic planning that contributed to the National Pandemic Plan now being actioned by the Government in its response to Covid-19.

He says it's good to see that work coming alive.

“Covid-19 is very concerning, if not a little frightening. I wouldn't like to catch it myself, particularly with my throat situation. I caught the swine flu and that was a real reminder of just how bad flu can be.

“Certainly, the Government has done the right thing but at the same time, I think we're becoming more and more aware of the economic pain that we're suffering and there's more to come.

“Probably more difficult for any Government to plan for is the impact on the people and the economy, which has been underestimated.

“I don't see us ever going back to what we had before. I think we've been caught in that consume, consume, consume (mentality) and now we're no longer travelling, eating out and people aren't spending time at shopping malls just for the sake of it.

“I think a fair bit of that — not all of it — will wear off.

“I think domestic tourism will get a big boost. I can remember even 30 or 40 years ago, there wasn't that much international tourism. It's a fairly recent thing — even though we were highly skewed towards it, I think that will be quiet for years to come.”

1918 influenza pandemic

The worst disease disaster in New Zealand history was the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide, including 9000 in this country.

Aside from that, the most alarming infectious disease in New Zealand last century was poliomyelitis (polio) — an acute viral disease affecting the spinal cord and nervous system. Symptoms include fever, headache, malaise, pain and stiffness in back and neck, and partial or complete paralysis of limbs or the entire body. Fatality rates varied from 2 percent to 10 percent.

The country experienced regular epidemics of polio: 1916, 1925, 1927, 1937, 1948–49, and 1952–53, with the last one in 1955–56 — just ahead of the introduction of a reliable vaccine.

Polio is considered a disease of children and adolescents, but older people suffer it too and the risk of paralysis increases markedly with age.

In early outbreaks there was no effective treatment — nursing was palliative (alleviating symptoms rather than the cause).

Seriously paralysed patients spent long periods in a compression chamber or ‘iron lung'. Survivors with withered legs were fitted with strengthening callipers to help them walk.

(Adapted from information in Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand website).

Gisborne's former Cook Hospital, where Marshall Hyland and other polio patients spent several weeks of their lives being treated for the disease in a dedicated hospital ward, like those typical of others throughout the country. Gisborne Herald file photo
Marshall Hyland and his wife Maria, who now live in Whakatane. Picture supplied

  1. Edith Morris, Hamilton says:

    Marshall Hyland’s recollection of his polio experience as a child is a snapshot of one of the last epidemics of polio. I would comment that there are many, many people like Marshall alive today who still live with the after-effects of polio. Most are around the same age as Marshall is now. In fact, we are the living witnesses of polio epidemics long forgotten by society. Marshall’s article is a timely reminder that polio survivors are still here and sprinkled throughout New Zealand and the world. Maybe as this current generation faces a new virus, something can be learnt from the past.

    1. Jill Mather (my real spelling is Gillian but never used) says:

      Edith, I was born and lived in Te Awamutu until my family moved to Auckland in 1950.
      I too am a polio victim… paralysed in the leg and partially my right. I wear a full length brace and use crutches.
      I caught polio in 1952 and spent several years in Auckland Public Hospital. I had an interesting career which finally followed all those years as a journalist, a business owner, and the Acting Town Town Clerk in Russell, the Bay of Islands, married, had two children and finally ended up in Australia as a journalist and part-time teacher in communications.
      Since retiring in 1969 I have written 6 books recording the war-time New Zealand and Australia horses. I had my own horses before contracting polio and have never ceased loving them. “Forgotten Heroes” was my first book published in 1976.

      Now I am in my early eighties… still with the brace and crutches… still writing.