Illness is a life sentence

11:08, Sep 28 2014
Susan Kerr
ILLNESS TAKES TOLL: Susan Kerr still suffers post-polio syndrome, experiencing a range of new problems, from deteriorating muscle function, breathing and speech problems to unusual fatigue.

Kiwi parents who question the need to vaccinate their children need to know that the crippling disease poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is ''just a plane ride away''.

Few New Zealanders have firsthand knowledge of the paralytic, sometimes fatal virus because it was last contracted in this country in 1962.

But the World Heath Organisation warns the crippling disease could be making a comeback.

Retired schoolteacher Susan Kerr in Picton read a few years ago that one in four New Zealand children have not completed their polio immunisation.

She has lived with its effects since 1956 when a polio epidemic swept through Britain. Nearly 68, she is now affected by post-polio syndrome, experiencing a range of new problems, from deteriorating muscle function, breathing and speech problems to unusual fatigue.

In 1956 her parents thought she had the flu and kept her in bed for a week. Little was known about polio then, Susan says.

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So when a private school near her home had closed after polio cases occurred among its pupils, no-one thought about the danger of letting two of its other children attend Susan's school. 

She and a teacher subsequently both contracted polio; the teacher died.

Polio was identified in Susan when her flu symptoms worsened and she was taken to hospital. She was placed in a glass-walled, isolation room, an ''iron lung'' kept on standby in case her own lungs collapsed.

Luckily they didn't and on the fourth week Susan went into a ward with two other polio girls. They didn't understand what was happening and Susan's memories of that time are not unhappy ones. She even remembers singing along to popular tunes played on the radio, such as Doris Day's Que Sera Sera (''Whatever will be will be'').

Three months in an orthopaedic rehabilitation hospital followed and Susan learnt to overcome her new disabilities. An orthopaedic surgeon described her recovery as ''a miracle'' but she says it was the start of a lifelong challenge to never let people see her as second-best.

Polio had destroyed the quadriceps in her right leg so her left leg had to do most of the work.

''My mother didn't want me to wear callipers. My parents thought I would get better and be like I was.''

Did she think so, too? 

''I never thought anything. I just got on with it.''

Susan says other pupils at her grammar school were supportive and she did her best to join them in extracurricular activities. She played hockey - ''I couldn't run, I played left back'', tried a few activities in athletics and managed to climb wall bars in gymnastics.

Following advice from a teacher to excel in less popular subjects if she wanted to go to university, Susan was accepted into Exeter University, Devon, to study Latin with Greek. 

She went on to obtain a teaching qualification then got married and moved to New Zealand with her husband in 1974. 

Twelve years and two children later the marriage collapsed and Susan wonders if the emotional trauma that brought triggered her next health challenge: post-polio syndrome.

Since 1986 she has progressively become weaker, started experiencing pain and stopped being able to walk long distances.

She joined the Post Polio Syndrome New Zealand board, attended an international seminar in the United States and, for a few years, ran a Post Polio Syndrome support group in Marlborough.

In 2009 she ''hit a wall'' and knew she had to ease back.

''I'm [still] the person people can ring ... but I don't run the group any more.''

Instead, she concentrates on personal needs. She sings with the Holy Trinity Church choir, helps a ''Mainly Music'' programme for preschoolers and belongs to Picton poetry and writers' groups.

''I have started [writing] a novel, a fantasy novel ... but I just go with the flow. 

''If I don't feel like getting up in the morning, I don't.''

The Marlborough Express