Arthur Dobson shares his story of growing up with polio in the southern Australian state of Tasmania. Mr Dobson is the Tasmanian State Finalist for Australia’s Local Hero 2013 and a long-time advocate on behalf of his fellow polio survivors.
In my case, I caught the polio virus – or should I say this virus caught me – at the age of six whilst living on the family farm at Hagley, some twenty miles west of Launceston. I was on stage in the choir at the local Sunday School Anniversary when I suddenly felt faint, staggered and crawled to the front of the stage. My father came and picked me up and took me back to his seat, where my parents comforted me until the end of the concert. When we went home, the local doctor was called.
After a quick examination I was taken to the Infectious Diseases Wing of the Launceston General Hospital where I spent about six months. My lasting memories of this place include the huge needle involved in the lumbar puncture, the (sometimes) warm saltwater baths and the rather crude way of serving hospital meals in those days. Both my legs were paralysed from the knees down and, when not being bathed, were bound in half plaster casts and later in half-length callipers, which I had to wear for several years.
I was transferred to the St. Giles Home for Crippled Children in Amy Road, Newstead (a suburb of Launceston), where I underwent rehabilitation and completed grade one. After eighteen months, I was allowed to return home. I started at the local school in callipers, but I was not allowed to participate or even watch the other kids during the sports periods, instead being confined to the library with the ‘other cripples’. But despite this, it was thought that I was one of the lucky ones – as I did not appear to have any residual effects of the polio – and like many former victims, I got on with my life.
I followed the family tradition of farming, specialising in stud livestock breeding and dairying. Unfortunately, some forty years ago I broke both legs in a motor vehicle accident and, although I again appeared to make a full recovery, I soon started to suffer from osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, the anti- inflammatory medication I was prescribed eventually caused bleeding from my stomach and that medication had to be discontinued. In recent years I have had major surgery for a stomach condition and had both hips replaced. It took over twelve months for the anaesthetic to finally wear off after the last hip replacement and, for a long time, it looked as if I might be on crutches for the rest of my life.
But my biggest challenge has definitely been the fatigue that is part of what is known as the “Late Effects of Polio” (Post Polio Syndrome) – likened to the brick wall that marathon runners hit during the latter stages of their race.
Sadly, very little is known about this condition. In the early nineties a support organisation was formed to provide information and support for Tasmania’s polio survivors, but it didn’t last long as the founder’s health soon deteriorated and no one stepped up to keep it going. In 1998, another meeting was called and a new group ‘The Post Polio Network – Tasmania Inc.’ was formed – and I took on the role of Public Officer. When the founder had to resign for family reasons several years later, I took on the additional role of Secretary and effectively ran the organisation until my own health deteriorated to the point where I had to resign that position in February 2012. Sadly, as no one has come forward to take on that role, the organisation has been now wound up. We are trying to get the website taken down, but it seems easier to set up a website than dismantle one.
Naturally, I am no longer farming, realising after the first hip operation that it was just not viable to continue. The farm was sold in August 1998 and I live on a half hectare rural block some fifteen minutes from Launceston with a faithful old dog and half a dozen sheep.
I have been a Director of the St. Giles Society since 1978 and am now the longest serving Director of that organisation – now Tasmania’s principal provider of services to children with disabilities after being founded in 1937 as a rehabilitation centre for children effected by polio. I am also continuing to publish a quarterly newsletter ‘TAS POLIO NEWS’, which is available on subscription, and the members of the former Post Polio Network are hoping to keep in touch through an informal alliance requiring no administration.
This is my story, and as I am a more outspoken person than most polio survivors, particularly the older ones, I do try to be an advocate for my fellow sufferers, in the hope that I may be able to help them make their lives easier.
We’re working to wipe out this virus so that no-one has to suffer from either polio or post-polio syndrome ever again. There’s less than 1% to go. Join the movement for the end of polio.