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Polio survivors reunited after almost 80 years

A BOND forged almost 80 years ago was re-galvanised in heart-warming fashion recently, when three polio survivors reunited for the first time since childhood.

It was a reunion that was long overdue as the three local ladies – Anna Gordon from Newtownstewart, Jean Hamilton from Dunamanagh and Dorothy Moore from Victoria Bridge – came together in recent days to mark Anna’s 84th birthday.

It was way back in 1943 when Anna Gordon, Jean Hamilton and Dorothy Moore last set eyes on each other, during their time at Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast as children.

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Taking a trip down memory lane into one of the most defining periods of their childhood, Anna remarked that she was “very happy” all three woman could come together under one roof again after 76 years, in what proved to be a emotive experience for all family and friends present.

“It’s strange that we’d never met up together before this,” admitted Anna. “It was so nice to see each other again. We sat and chatted for hours – it was great.”

The extraordinary reunion was organised by Hazel Ferguson who, knowing all three women separately, soon realised they shared a common story. It wasn’t long before the dots were connected and she arranged the long anticipated get together at her home in Newtownstewart.

The three ladies now all in their 80s suffered from Poliomyelitis – Polio as it is more commonly known – in their youth.

Polio is a serious viral infection that can be life-threatening, causing temporary or permanent paralysis in many cases. During the 20th century this epidemic was rampant across Ireland, with 1,816 cases of the disease recorded in the North between 1938 and 1969.

Thankfully though, for the three Tyrone women, the treatment they received at Musgrave Hospital as children ensured a quick recovery.

Thinking back to her youth after she was diagnosed with infantile paralysis – today referred to as Polio – Anna recalled that she never felt unwell or in pain. She does vividly remember however, the day she noticed something wasn’t quite right with her leg.

“I can remember coming home from school and suddenly I couldn’t put my foot to the ground,” explained the Newtownstewart native.

“I was taken to the doctors and they could find nothing wrong, they thought I’d actually done something on the way home from school that I wasn’t telling.”

Anna was subsequently taken to a specialist in Omagh, Mr Whithers, who had come down from Belfast to meet with her and he soon discovered that Anna’s right leg was much shorter than the left.

As Polio was rife during the 1940s there were very few beds available in hospitals and Anna had to wait several weeks before finally being admitted to Musgrave Park in Belfast.

Accompanied by her mother and younger sister, the trio made the journey to the Belfast hospital by taxi, the fare costing a total of £5.

At only eight-years-old this was a significantly emotional experience for Anna who admitted she cried as she was carried into the hospital.

However after only a few days at Musgrave she soon struck up a bond with two girls of a similar age, Jean and Dorothy, with whom she would later share a room.

Spending over three months in hospital being treated for Polio – with her leg in a plaster of Paris from her ankle to her thigh – Anna looks back at her time at Musgrave with fond memories, appreciating the “good company” of her roommates.

Anna who is now 84 remembers her time in the Belfast hospital vividly and Christmas in particular stands out as the most memorable time during her three month stay.

“I had never seen Santa Claus before in my life,” Anna recalled. “Nor had I seen a plum pudding set alight; I remember this big blue flame – I was amazed. I also remember them opening the back doors of the old huts at Musgrave park and throwing in snowballs.”

Although the three young girls spent only a short time together in hospital, their friendship stood the test of time and as their reunion proved, they have many fond memories together to look back on.

Nowadays with the polio vaccination commonplace, the disease often passes quickly without causing any major problems but during the early 20th century those suffering from the disease could face life-long difficulties.

Both Jean and Dorothy have had issues with their legs ever since their youth, but for Anna however, her short stay in the hospital rid her of Polio entirely.

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The Strabane Chronicle is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 15 Main Street, Strabane, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland, BT82 8AS