It was one of Mum’s great joys that she lived to see polio virtually eradicated worldwide in her lifetime, writes Tim Cadogan, mayor of Central Otago.
I got the text message last week advising me that I could go online and book my Covid-19 vaccinations. Despite how I sometimes look, I haven’t reached the 65-plus age bracket yet, but cancer has put me into the group ahead of most of my contemporaries. I jumped at the chance and look forward to the day when I get my second shot, not just for my own sake but for the sake of the broader community.
I recall my first ever school vaccination when I would have been, I guess, five or six. I have always had a lot of clear memories of my young years despite the fact I often forget what I did last week. I can recall standing in a long line of kids in a corridor that smelt of floor polish as we wove our way down from the primer block to the school hall where a couple of stools waited and nurses stood with needles at the ready. Lots of kids were crying beforehand and more afterwards but there was no way I was shedding a tear. That’s because of what my mum said to me before I left that morning.
On her 12th birthday, my mum got polio. She was one of the last victims of the 1937 polio epidemic, one of the seven polio epidemics New Zealand suffered between 1916 and 1956. Those epidemics cost the lives of hundreds of mostly young New Zealanders and permanently disabled thousands more. My mum was one of them and from the moment she woke up on the morning of her birthday to her death 76 years later, there was not a moment where polio did not affect her life in cruel and painful ways.
She was rushed to hospital where she was isolated while she fought for her life. Imagine for a moment being 12 and seeing your mother taken from your home and family and placed in isolation for months while suffering an illness you knew could have the direst of consequences. She stayed there a long time, and even during her recovery, visits were restricted, with her only able to see immediate family for an hour or so every Sunday. I met a distant cousin recently who told me how she recalled being taken each Sunday to visit, a visit that consisted to waving at Mum from outside her window. Again, imagine that at 12.
Mum then fought through a lifetime of pain and disability and triumphed over the cards she was dealt. When I was four, she had a major operation to straighten her collapsing spine, an operation that saved her life. The name of the surgeon (Mr Mirkin) was forever revered in our house. She was a year in hospital and about the same amount of time recuperating, including being in a metal brace that she wore from her neck to her waist. When I was about 11, she underwent another major surgery, again involving a very long hospital stay. Polio doesn’t go away and in later life she suffered post-polio syndrome. As I say, she never had a moment free of the debilitating effects.
Despite a shattered and weakened body; Mum was the strongest person I have ever, and probably will ever know. Her strength of character and will was defined by the challenges she faced. I still miss her dreadfully and am actually struggling to write this just thinking of her and what she went through.
So when she explained to the five year old me that the needle would sting a bit but that it would save me from “walking funny” like she did, and that I was not to cry, you better believe I did not cry.
Polio is a distant memory in New Zealand, solely because of the vaccination programme. Generations have been saved from what my mother endured simply because enough people got vaccinated to eradicate the disease. It was one of Mum’s great joys that she lived to see the illness virtually eradicated worldwide in her lifetime.
So, I am very keen to get my Covid jabs, and I won’t cry. Not unless I think about my mum.
This column first appeared in the Southland Times