Jan Nichols



I don’t remember what life was like before I developed polio since I was only 15 months old, but legend has it that I was a normal wee toddler, and the apple of my parents’ eyes as I had two older brothers.

One day I was standing on the sofa and kept lifting up one leg. Shortly after this, I was taken ill with polio and had to be hospitalized for quite some time. This was 1949 in Paisley, Scotland. While I was in the hospital, my sister was born. I realize now how traumatic the experience must have been for my whole family.

I know I was very fortunate that only one leg was affected. I came from a very loving and supportive family and I remember when I got teased at school for walking with a limp and wearing a brace on my leg how my brothers would always come to my aid.

They were so overprotective of me and I remember seeing them get into fights because of me. I was the only child in our primary school who had been afflicted with polio and I remember some of the teachers being especially nice to me, which was unheard of in those days.

I remember trips to the hospital at five and again at seven years of age. In those days children weren’t prepared for surgery ahead of time. I remember going to the hospital and screaming when a nurse came to take me away from my family.

I was in the operating room before I knew what was happening, held down on the table and the anesthetic mask put down on my face. To this day, I still get that suffocating feeling when I think about it. Even a trip to the dentist causes me great anxiety.

A very significant time in my life was at 10 years old when I again had to go to the hospital for surgery. This time it wasn’t to be a local hospital, but Phillipshill Hospital on the other side of Glasgow; a two hour trip on three different buses. To this day I can still remember getting the anesthetic and my doctor’s name, Dr. Markleson.

I still remember my first days there, crying from loneliness as I knew I would only see my parents on weekends. My siblings would only be able to visit occasionally as money was tight and bus fares expensive. I entered the hospital on October 10th and did not leave until mid-February.

I eventually accepted the situation and since other children were there for an extended time, we became our own family. I was not allowed to walk and since there was a shortage of wheelchairs, we used to slide around the floors on blankets.

We did not have any formal education there, but a teacher would bring us books to read. However, I preferred to spend my time helping the nurses look after the babies.

When it was time to go home, I was apprehensive; by now I felt secure at the hospital. The only teasing that I remember was when a boy said he liked me and a nurse made me kiss him-YUCK!

I had a very difficult time adjusting to the outside world. My family was very supportive, but going back to school was a nightmare. Since I hadn’t done any schoolwork for so long, I was way behind my classmates. I was totally humiliated when it was decided that I should be “kept back” a grade.

Some of my teachers were very kind to me. One was a neighbour and I would go to her house for extra lessons. Another would drive me to school, but I didn’t appreciate that too much as then I got teased for being a “teacher’s pet”.

By the time I got to high school, I was finished with doctors, hospitals, physiotherapy and the leg brace, but my teen years weren’t happy, as I still struggled with my schoolwork and had very low self-esteem.

I thought I wanted to be a nurse, but after starting training I dropped out. I ended up not furthering my education after high school. I had taken typing in school, so I was able to get jobs in offices. I always wanted to prove that I wasn’t different from everyone else, but I put tremendous pressure on myself.

At the age of 19 I was still unhappy and decided to immigrate to Canada. At first I stayed with an aunt, but later I moved to a girl’s residence in Toronto.

It was during my early days in Toronto that I learned to be more outgoing and much more self-assured. I always got glowing letters of reference from my employers because I worked so hard to please them.

In the following years, I got married and had three children. All of my family immigrated to Canada except one brother, who remained in Scotland.

Life was very busy and fulfilling in the years when I was raising my family. My girls were involved in Highland dancing and my son played hockey, among other things. After nine years at home, I had to return to the working world for financial reasons. Once again, I put pressure on myself to work really hard.

I haven’t worked for a year now due to post-polio syndrome (PPS). I had a very stressful job and ignored the early signs of PPS; the falling, the fatigue. Even after one fall, where I fractured my pelvis in a couple of places, I didn’t stay home. Eventually it was taken out of my hands when my employer sent me home to get well. I’m sure they didn’t think it would take this long.

I still haven’t learned to pace myself and am constantly hitting the “polio wall.” I enjoy going out to events in the city or doing things with my family and have now accepted the fact that, after doing an activity, I will spend a day or two in bed. That is where I find my studies to be beneficial, as I can rest my body and exercise my brain. I still haven’t found a way to cope with brain fatigue other than rest and maybe watching television.

Although only one leg was involved at the onset of polio, my other leg is now very weak and I have osteoarthritis in both knees. I also have problems with my back and hips, so the one activity that I did enjoy, walking, is now really limited.

I hope one day to return to the workforce, though probably not in my old job as I no longer feel as if I could get back into such a stressful situation, nor would I want to. I am presently taking classes in meditation and am beginning to feel its benefits.

I have learned a lot by being part of the Toronto - Peel - York Post Polio group and have found that being with others who have the same problem is beneficial to my well-being.

--Jan Nichols

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