Polio Victim Walks the Sandakan to Ranau Death March

10 Oct

In the shadow of Mt Kinabalu dominating the Sabah skyline, I and small group of young people, parents and teachers, walked some 90 k’s in the footsteps of the Australian soldiers who perished on the Sandakan to Ranau death marches at the end of WWII.

This is the second time I have taken part in this trek(walked in 2010) but the first time I completed the march as a polio victim, the first such person to do so. That is strange, you may say to yourself, surely you haven’t just contracted polio in the last 2 years?

No, I haven’t. But the answer is I only just realised I had polio as a child and no one told me that I did. Unbelievable? No. There are many others like me for whom this is their experience. I will tell you my story.

In July I had a fall and broke 2 ribs.  Walking down 2 steps, my left leg gave way and I fell. This was not the first time this had happened. It had been happening a lot especially when I was tired, running or changing directions.

A week later it happened again. This time I was carrying my cup and plate back in a coffee shop when I went down, smashing everything I was carrying. The next day I went to a boot maker to get some new red boots made.  I said to her that I had a dodgy leg due to a sporting accident and that’s why my leg was ‘odd’.  She replied, ‘It is not your accident but your disability which is the problem.’

I said nothing but thought, ‘What disability?’

On the way home I began thinking and remembered a story about my mother finding me outside unable to walk. Apparently I was bedridden for sometime before getting back on my feet.

When I spoke to my parents and questioned them, my father said, ‘We didn’t talk about it much, but yes, you had polio, spent sometime in hospital.’ Mum said I always walked funny and fell over a lot when I played sport.

Then I spoke to my best friend from school who also said I walked funny, and when he asked his sister her first comment was, ‘Yes, did he have polio?’

It appears I was the last to know. Some 53 years later I found out. By accident.

One could get angry about not knowing, yet if I had would I have walked the track, gone to sea on warships, played grade cricket, hockey and football?  Would I have travelled around the world and believed all was possible? Would I have studied at the Marcel Marceau school of mime in Paris?Probably not.

Yet the consequences of not knowing is that I have not known the reason for the incredible tiredness, sleep apnoea, muscle soreness, ‘blue feet’, sore fingers and toes and more, such as the anxiety attacks and depression. Perhaps I would have been a little kinder to my self and not tried to be ‘normal’. Perhaps I would have known why I was a type A personality. Perhaps I would have avoided the bullying I suffered at school. Who knows?

What I do know, now I know, that I can still do ‘stuff’, but just a little slower, a little gentler and with a little more awareness of my body’s needs.

In Borneo I walked at my pace, was often the last one in to rest breaks, felt no need to keep up with the others, rested when I needed to, went to bed early, ate sensibly, drank lots of water and generally cared for myself in a way I have not done before.  And I walked the gruelling 90 odd k’s.  It hurt and it was hard, but I did it.

For more information on post polio syndrome go to www.polioaustralia.org.au

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