Sunday 1 February 2015

'I survived polio as a child, but still suffer'

The disease can come back to affect people's lives years after their recovery, writes Lisa Jewell

Eddie Roycroft had polio as a three year old.

When you think about polio in Ireland, images of children from the 1940s and 1950s instantly spring to mind.

It was the time of the big polio epidemics, caused by an infectious virus that killed hundreds and paralysed or disabled even more people. It was a frightening time for parents who watched the rapid spread of a disease through their community.

But while polio has been eradicated in Ireland, that doesn't mean that its after-effects aren't still being felt.

Thousands of Irish people who contracted polio in childhood are still dealing with the fallout of the disease or have gone on to develop Post Polio Syndrome. This condition cruelly comes back later in life to those who had previously had polio and impacts on their mobility, their health and their quality of life.

Two such people are Eddie Roycroft from Blanchardstown, Dublin, and Claire White, from Donaghmede, Dublin.

"I caught polio when I was three and a half," says Eddie, who is 60. "My mother thought it was just the flu so she brought me to the doctor. He said: 'He'll get over it soon', but she said: 'No, no, I'm going further with it'."

Eddie was diagnosed with polio and was admitted to Cherry Orchard Hospital, which served as a fever hospital at the time. For the next 18 months, Eddie stayed in the hospital with no visits home, as per medical advice.

"My mother used to come over and visit and my father and my sisters would come over if they could at the weekend. But my family couldn't come in and see me – they could look through the window or there'd be a rope across the room and there'd be a few people there that, you know, they'd shout across at their children."

At one stage, Eddie was on the verge of being placed in the iron lung, a contraption designed to help polio sufferers who experienced breathing problems, but his condition slightly improved. He was later sent home and underwent rehabilitation.

"I never thought I had anything wrong with me. It never dawned on me when I went to school and like at the sports day, nobody would want to tie up with me for the three-legged race. Or when I was playing football in the street, why I was always last to be picked and I was always in goal. It didn't register to me that I had a bit of a limp."

Eddie went on to work in construction and then became a taxi driver. He and his wife had a family of five children.

"In 2002, I started getting aches and pains and I thought it was my kidneys. So I went to my doctor and I was sent to a specialist. She examined me and said it wasn't kidney problems. She just happened to ask did I have any other illnesses in my life and I said I had polio when I was three and a half but I was fine.

"She said: 'No, they've discovered that the virus that affected the nerves and muscles in your body can affect you later on'."

Eddie was referred to consultant neurologist Professor Orla Hardiman, who treats many Post Polio Syndrome sufferers in Ireland.

"I got it in 1953 – during one of the epidemics," she says. "I was two years old at the time. They thought I had kidney problems but it was only after the fever left that they put me on the ground to walk and then they realised I had a limp."

Claire was in and out of hospital over the years and had an operation on her leg when she was 14.

"Then soon after that you were discharged. They thought you were at a level where nothing could be done for you and your limp wasn't going to change from that time onwards."

Irish Independent

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