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A letter from Gillian

Rating:; Genre=Non-fiction; Pages=3; Characters=5,639;
This is gives a short account of Gillian's experiences of catching polio and her rehabilitation. She is now a prominent member of OverGround and was one of the organizers of last year's meeting. (This document was first published in OverGround 4(3): 33--35.)

The relevant part of my story commences some thirty plus years ago when I was 15. I contracted a virus probably whilst swimming in the Mediterranean during a Summer holiday. On arrival back in England I was rushed to the local hospital where the diagnosis was polio. The next nine months passed in a haze of hospitals, white sheets, operating theaters, and physiotherapy. To cut a long story short I was eventually semi-discharged home with 75% paralysis of both legs. Medical opinion had been that I should be able to walk quite well with two full length callipers, but having seen them being fitted and used whilst I was in hospital I was extremely reluctant to try. Nevertheless sense prevailed and I spent some three months at the Nuffield Orthopedic Hospital in Oxford going through a degree of rehabilitation.

The whole process started, in those days, with plaster casts being taken of my legs, from which moulds were made for the calliper-maker to work to. I remember the fitting very clearly because when the resultant appliances were brought to my bed for a fitting they were not the shiny steel and leather devices that my neighbors were wearing, but crude looking creations with dull unpolished leather and rough unfinished steel. The fitter was quick to reassure me that they would be neatly finished once the fitting was correct. Good as his word, within two weeks, he came this time with two bundles of shiny steel and polished leather under his arms.

I had spent many hours watching other polio victims in the ward getting used to their appliances. We were housed in what we all were sure had been an old army hut, certainly it was mostly built from wood. Parallel bars had been rigged at one end of the ward and from this area the noise of twelve of us getting used to some unwieldy technology was at times deafening. Before my first attempt at walking in callipers I had watched my neighbor Wendy starting her personal road to renewed mobility. She seemed to be finding walking extremely difficult and regularly confided in me that she thought she would never get the hang of it. I could not see what was causing her problems, all one had to do was to slightly lift each leg and swing it forwards and then repeat the process. So easy I thought!

Eventually the day came when Mr. McMally, the orthotist, (although we didn't call them that in those days) appeared at the ward door with my callipers in his arms. He spent a long time adjusting them to my legs, making sure that every buckle met where it should and that my stance was correct. Finally all was ready and with the help of two nurses I was lifted to my feet. It was a peculiar feeling to be standing upright again after nearly a year of either lying or sitting in bed. I soon realized that I had forgotten how to balance myself and would have fallen had not the strong hands of the nurses been there to support me. Wendy called words of encouragement, and following Mr. McMally's instructions I attempted to lift my right leg. Nothing would happen as for the first (and not the last) time I realized how heavy callipers were.

I eventually succeeded in raising and swinging my right leg and then repeated the procedure with the left. I managed four steps before I cried halt and asked to be returned to my bed. I was devastated, as a short while earlier it had seemed only a formality before I was walking out of the hospital on my own. Mr. McMally and the nurses were angels and gently made me see that I would need many hours of practice before I could walk easily, but they were sure I could do it. I was also advised that using crutches was a good idea, but having seen my friend Wendy managing without I was determined to do the same. This was one of my better decisions.

So started many weeks of walking practice, firstly with the help of nurses, then between parallel bars, and finally on my own. I had a tendency to swing my arms too wide (a fault I still have) which at times conflicted with others in the same area and consequently I earned the nickname Windmill.

My first callipers were solid without any knee-bend mechanism, which were better for first-time users as falls (of which there were many) were less likely to cause much harm either to the wearer or the callipers. Although, as I later found, rigid callipers were considerably lighter to wear, they dictated certain disciplines, one of which was the problem of sitting down. Usually this was resolved by placing a foot stool in front of my chair as a leg-rest, but try doing that with a dining chair, and see the fun we used to have at mealtimes.

However my walking practice paid off and within three months I was being fitted with my first pair of callipers with knee-joints. I was so pleased with them that I spent much of the time operating the knee-locks and reveling in the automatic unlocking mechanism every time I sat down.

It is only in the last few months that I have become aware that OverGround exists, and I wish Kevin and John well in their endeavors to take some of the guilt out of readers' desires. Although I cannot speak for anyone but myself I would much prefer open discussion and admission by those who harbor erotic feelings towards amputees or calliper-wearers. It isn't the disgrace that some OverGround correspondents seem to believe.

Thursday October 10th, 1996

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