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Marking World Polio Day: Michael’s story

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In the run up to World Polio Day (24 October), we remember our roots as a charity. Our earliest medical research helped to develop the first UK vaccines to protect children from polio.

Here we share supporter Michael’s story of how polio affected him as a child, and the pioneering operations he had that would transform his life.

A young Michael with his mother

In the early 1950s, polio was one of the most feared diseases in the world. At this time, around 8,000 people were paralysed by polio each year in the UK. Tragically, five to 10 per cent lost their lives after their breathing muscles became immobilised.

Michael Cawley, from Carshalton, Greater London, was just three months old when he caught the virus in 1955 – the year that the first vaccine, known as the Salk vaccine, was introduced in the UK.

My elder siblings had been vaccinated against polio but at that time I was considered too young to have it”

“I’d had a high fever that initially the doctor thought was pneumonia,” says Michael. “But then my mother noticed that I had lost the use of my right leg. It never fully recovered and it started to waste away. I had some small use of the muscles but essentially the leg was non-functioning and became atrophied over time. I was registered as a polio victim.”

Michael was initially treated at the Evelina Hospital in London, but it was when he was transferred to Lewisham Hospital that a series of operations and treatments transformed his life.

“The doctor told my father that he could make my leg grow and correct my Achilles tendon. I was eight when I had major surgery and treatment, which included bone growth stimulants and bone peg implants at the top and bottom of my tibia and at the bottom of my femur. I still recall the pain, which was excruciating.”

The operations and treatment were a great success and completely corrected the deformity in Michael’s leg. “With my leg now growing and my foot corrected I was in great form,” he says.

Michael still needed some support from calipers but has gone on to lead a very active life, playing sport to a high level. “I became a proficient spin bowler and a very good goalkeeper, but my forte was gymnastics: floor work, gymnastic rings and parallel bars were my home. The body has a tendency to compensate so I developed very powerful upper body strength and my left leg was also strengthened.”

Michael, now 68 (pictured below with his grandchildren), describes himself as having post-polio syndrome as he’s got older, and uses a mobility scooter and wheelchair now, though he is still working and living life to the full.

Action Medical Research was instrumental in developing the first polio vaccines in the UK. Our founder, Duncan Guthrie, set up the charity after his daughter, Janet, contracted the virus at the age of 20 months. 

Duncan's determination to fight polio inspires us today, as we continue to work to save and change the lives of babies, children and young people through vital medical research.

Michael with his grandchildren

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