‘I didn’t know I had parents until I was seven’: Polio’s forgotten survivors
Robynne Clifton holds hands with another polio patient at the Royal Far West in Sydney in 1952. (Supplied: Robynne Clifton)
For the first seven years of her life, Robynne Clifton was confined to a hospital ward for treatment, hundreds of kilometres away from her family.
Ms Clifton is one of an estimated 400,000 Australians affected by polio and wants people to know that although the viral infection is no longer a threat, it is not forgotten.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Polio Australia estimates that between 20,000 to 40,000 Australians were impacted by paralytic polio.
“I was just learning to walk when I caught the disease,” Ms Clifton said.
“How my mum figured out something was wrong, was when I was trying to get the dummy off my shoulder and I couldn’t; my body wouldn’t move.”
Ms Clifton’s family lived in Canberra at the time, so they took her to Sydney for care at the Royal Far West facility, which provided specialist health services to children living in rural and remote parts of Australia.
Her family was unable to afford the move to Sydney to be with her during treatment for polio.
“I didn’t know my parents until I was seven because it was too expensive for them to relocate to Sydney, let alone visit on a regular basis,” Ms Clifton said.
One visit sticks out in her mind.
“There was a couple visiting me and before they left, the matron at the Royal said to ‘say goodbye to your mum and dad,'” she says.
“At first I was taken aback, but then I started jumping up and down in my cot saying, ‘I have a mum and a dad!’ because at the time, I didn’t know I had parents.”
Ms Clifton grew up at the Royal Far West and cannot remember a lot from her time spent in the ward, except for a couple of special guests who stopped by.
“I remember Queen Elizabeth visiting and TV cowboy Roy Rogers coming, but his mate Trigger couldn’t come with him that day because he was too busy,” she said.
Ms Clifton received no formal education during her time at the Royal Far West — the highest grade she achieved was grade two.
It was not until she turned seven that she was released from the Royal Far West to live with her family, who had by now relocated to Ipswich, Queensland.
Robynne Clifton, pictured here at age seven, wore a caliper on her left leg until she turned 13. (Supplied: Robynne Clifton)
While Ms Clifton was away, her mother remarried and there was a sister waiting at home to meet her.
“Coming home was an exciting time as I got to find out I had a family,” she said.
“Mum took me out to my first restaurant and I got to see movie.”
From the age of seven to 14, Ms Clifton endured at least two operations a year, but none of them improved her condition.
“After the last operation I had, my stepfather told the doctors that that was it — no more,” Ms Clifton said.
“My birth father was no longer a part of my life and my stepfather became my champion.”
A constant reminder of her diagnosis was the calipers Ms Clifton wore — a metal splint used to stabilise the joints and assist the muscles of the leg.
But when they came off when she was 13, Ms Clifton’s mum put aside the fact that her daughter walked with a severe limp and enrolled her in dance classes.
“Mum signed me up for ballroom dancing and I continued dancing up until 2010 when I had to start using a wheelchair to get around,” she said.
As Ms Clifton got older, she was dealing with post-polio syndrome, a complication of the polio virus that impacts the body decades after infection.
“I can’t walk on my own unassisted anymore because my healthy muscles are attaching themselves to my paralysed muscles, so they are basically giving up,” she said.
“I have an occupational therapist, and someone helps me get dressed, so I want those with post-polio syndrome to know they have someone there for them.”
For the past 15 years she has been a volunteer at support organisation Polio Australia.
Robynne Clifton, 69, contracted polio when she was a baby and has been living with post-polio syndrome for most of her adult life. (Supplied: Robynne Clifton)
Even though Polio Australia estimates there are about 40,000 people in Australia with post-polio syndrome, a lack of precise record keeping has made it difficult to get a definite number.
“That number doesn’t include any migrants who may have come to Australia during that up until recently,” said Polio Australia’s clinical health educator Paul Cavendish.
“There could be up to 10 times more survivors out there that we don’t know of.”
Polio was officially eradicated in Australia in the year 2000, but Papua New Guinea confirmed its first polio outbreak in 18 years this year.
Mr Cavendish said the biggest misconception about polio survivors was that they were not around anymore.
“Many of those impacted by polio may be older, but there are still Australians that have polio who will require support for years to come,” he said.
“People can live for many years without significant side effects of the disease, but when they do start to decline, it’s imperative that Polio Australia and other organisations work with doctors and rehabilitation workers to help survivors manage their symptoms.”