Health Case Study: A Born Fighter
Polio survivor Ann Pepper tells Joy Orpen how, despite the tragic circumstances of her childhood years, she has found solace helping others in a group that supports others, like herself, who have post-polio syndrome
Having suffered from polio is bad enough, but for the symptoms of the disease to return with a vengeance many years later seems extremely unfair. Yet, that is exactly what happens to many polio survivors -- and Ann Pepper, from Tallaght, north Dublin, is no exception.
As a toddler, she did not learn to walk properly. Instead, she crawled about, dragging her lame right leg behind her.
Sadly, Ann was only taken to see a specialist when she was in her fourth year. He explained that her problems had been caused by the highly infectious viral disease, which reached epidemic proportions in Ireland in the 1950s, and added that she had probably contracted it when she was a baby.
While vaccines have ensured the condition is rarely seen in developing countries these days, Ann says the sluggishness in tackling her physical problems was not unusual, as her parents, now deceased, struggled to care for their 11 children.
"My mother didn't bring me to the hospital -- I was taken there by a neighbour," she adds. "I wasn't told where I was going or why. I rarely saw my mother unless there were forms to sign for surgery."
The specialist arranged for Ann to be admitted to the orthopaedic hospital in Clontarf. She was fitted with a calliper and given crutches to walk with, but her schooling was limited to one day a week.
Nonetheless, Ann is grateful for the emotional and physical care she was given during her eight years there.
"They were very good to me and I made friends I still see today," she says.
Ann was discharged when she made her Confirmation, going home on her crutches. However, her parents soon packed her off to a harsh industrial school, run by nuns.
"The nuns took away my calliper and crutches before putting me in a bed," she tells me. "They told me repeatedly that no one would ever love me -- after all, my parents didn't even want me. They taught me how to hate."
Three years later, Ann was able to return home. She started attending school at the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) in Goatstown. This marked a significant turning point in her, up until then, sad life.
"I felt loved, wanted and at home there," she says. "There were all sorts of facilities -- a clinic, a swimming pool."
Here, Ann, who was not yet 16, learned to use a sewing machine, which would give her the exit route she needed to get out of her unhappy home for good.
"They [the CRC] even got me a job in Gardiner Street, sewing ladies' suits," she says. "Within a year, though it was an uphill battle, I'd saved enough money for a deposit on my own place. It was tiny, but, to me, it was a palace."
Shortly afterwards, she met Pat, the man she was to marry, when she saved him from being run over by a bus.
They went on to have four sons, but the youngest was not even a year old when Pat died of throat cancer.
After that, Ann met Peter and they had two sons together. But, tragically, she also lost him to cancer.
It was during this period that she started to experience weakness and other strange symptoms.
"I began to lose strength," Ann says. "I was dropping things. I even got scalded when a teapot slipped from my hands. And I had terrible fatigue." It was a most depressing time for her, particularly because she thought she had developed multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease.
Whatever the problem, she was becoming more debilitated and depressed with each passing day.
Things began to change when, as she sat in a doctor's waiting room during the mid-Ninties, she noticed a sign asking: What happens after polio?
"I wanted to know more, so I put that phone number in my bag," Ann says. "A year later, when my symptoms got even worse, I called it."
She spoke to Joan Bradley, a founder member of the Post Polio Support Group (PPSG), and learned that some of the 7,500 polio survivors in Ireland were experiencing similar problems.
Their symptoms included muscle and joint pain, a lack of strength, fatigue, severe intolerance to the cold, and respiratory, swallowing and sleep issues.
Ann says there is no cure for post-polio syndrome (which, unlike polio, is not contagious), but much can be done to alleviate the symptoms.
In her case, she needs splints for her hands, she has to be careful to stay warm, and she has to pace herself carefully. Despite her stringent efforts, however, she ended up losing her mobility.
"I got an infection in my leg and ended up in Beaumont Hospital," Ann says. "I went in hardly walking and came home in a wheelchair, and have been in one ever since."
As Ann struggles to survive on a disability pension of €188 a week (plus a €7.77 living alone allowance), she's unable to keep her motorised wheelchair charged -- it would cost €200 a month to charge it.
As a result, she mostly stays at home and has to get around in her manual chair. But that doesn't prevent her from living an independent life.
"I cling to my independence," Ann tells me. "None of my children have to clean up after me. I do all my own shopping, housework, cooking and ironing. And I take care of my grandchildren and one great-grandchild when I can."
Not content with all of that, Ann is also an enthusiastic member of the PPSG and, at the time of this interview, she was really excited about a branch meeting scheduled to be held in the Maldron Hotel in Tallaght that night.
She has not had an easy life, given that her "unhappy" childhood was compounded by severe health problems, but that hasn't prevented Ann from becoming an exceptionally warm-hearted, entertaining and caring individual.
"I never, ever had a doll or a tea set," she says. "I used to sling my useless leg on my chest and, covering it with a sheet, I'd pretend that it was a doll.
"No matter what is going on inside, there is always someone worse off than you -- and a smile costs nothing.
"So I will go around that group tonight and I will talk to each one individually. And, if anyone needs to speak to me privately, they will get that opportunity.
"I don't want anyone to be in the situation I was in, not knowing what was wrong with me and having no one to talk to. I don't want anyone feeling they are on the outside looking in, as I did as a child.
"The group fills a void inside me -- the yearning that was inside me is gone. I love the bones of every single person in that organisation."
Post Polio Support Group, Unit 319 Capel Building, Mary's Abbey, D7, tel: (01) 889-8920, or see www.ppsg.ie