Friday 28 November 2014

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

Ann Pepper

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."

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.

Irish Independent

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