Joy's story

Joy recalls having diphtheria as a small girl in the 1920s.

"In 1928 there was quite an epidemic I understand. I was seven at that time.

My husband and his younger brother also had diphtheria at the same time. He was in hospital, but of course I wasn’t acquainted with his family then. I used to attend Mt Albert Primary School and I don’t know how bad it was in the school or how many children were affected.

The first thing I remember about it is lying on a couch in the living room and feeling very strange. I suppose I was running a temperature, I really don’t know, and my mother coming over and feeling my forehead, saying “open your mouth dear” and looking down my throat and saying “Good God!”. She could apparently see a big stream of mucus across my throat and she just went and called the doctor.

After that it is all blotted out for quite a while. I don’t know, a kind of delirium I suppose. I certainly don’t remember very much, just being put to bed and the next thing I remember is this nurse being there, attending to me. My father was a Victorian in his way; he thought people only went to hospital to die and so I was nursed at home.

I just remember feeling hot and dizzy and that was all. It is completely blotted out. I suppose in the beginning diphtheria is quite severe. My brother was tipped out of his room to give a room to the nurse. When I began to recover a bit she sat me on a chair with a blanket around me while she made my bed and I remember falling; well I didn’t actually fall on to the floor, she caught me! I don’t know how long I was in bed.

When I began to recover I was eventually allowed outside. By that time I didn’t have the nurse, and my brother was instructed to play on one side of the property and I was instructed I could only be on the other side. There was a central lawn with a group of cabbage trees on it and we used to shout at each other across this, and he would be taken in the house on his own and then I would be taken in the house on my own and I would have all my meals in my own bedroom.

I do remember missing Nurse Mangan very much. She used to go out and buy me my comic which was ordered at the time. Every week. My Favourite it was called. That to me seemed to go on for quite a while so perhaps she was there for several weeks. There was always a basin of water at the door for her to wash her hands coming in and out, and for me coming in and out; a fluid, I don’t know, disinfectant of some sort, I think it was Jeyes.

No friends and the neighbours didn’t drop in on my mother. I remember hearing my aunt’s voice calling out from the door, “how are you, how are you?” Of course I felt fine by that time but I was still contagious. Fortunately I liked to read and I was very advanced in reading so the time passed. I did plenty of puzzles and all sorts of things. I don’t remember in retrospect being very lonely or anything. Of course my brother was there and he talked to me through the door too and then when the whole thing was over they fumigated the room. I remember everything being blocked up, you know, the keyhole and everything being blocked up.

My father steered clear of me and I suppose that was because he had to go out to work; he would talk to me through the door. I do remember that. And as far as I know, my mother, who was a very devout person, used to go off to church. I knew that I was loved, I knew we would get back to normal sooner or later.

A little notice appeared in the paper that said the carrier of diphtheria at Mt Albert School had been located and isolated. Well I was isolated. People going by, the neighbours, wouldn’t walk on the footpath, just outside the house. No they would go in the middle of the road or over the other side of the road. They got over it after a while but I was home for six months and the reason for that was after a certain time they would take a swab of the throat, I think at weekly intervals. One had to have three clear swabs to be cured, or called cured. I would frequently have two clear ones and my mother would be hopping around with excitement, “oh this is wonderful, wonderful”, and back would come the news that the third one was once again wrong, the bug was still there. That went on for a long time.

Yes that was the other thing, after all this time went by they said the only thing they could think of to get rid of this bug was for me to have tonsils and adenoids removed. So one room in the house was cleared right out, no doubt by my mother, for the operation. It was all scrubbed out with disinfectant and the carpet removed. In those days it was carpet squares. Everything was removed from the room and probably the hospital would have supplied a trolley of some sort, I don’t know. I was given ether, of course. I remember being terrified of that, the way they put the mask over your face and I remember screaming. Mm, the rubber on the outside and the gauze over the top and oh it was just dreadful. I still remember it to this day, it was so frightening.

But being given ice cream always cheers you up. It didn’t last very long, just a very sore throat for a little while and eventually the three clear swabs came along.

So by the time I got back to school we were well into the year. I do remember not passing some spelling test and the teacher hesitating about giving me a whack on the hand, because that was the punishment in those days if you were not able to spell a word correctly. And she said, “oh I don’t like to do this, you really are very good at spelling”.

I remember some of the children wouldn’t come near me and I had to sit in my seat at the side of the room. I have no doubt those children were told by their parents to keep away from me. And I do remember them not clustering around me in the playground to say, “what happened”, just keeping clear.

And then they sort of forgot. A real leper. I told my mother about it and she just explained to me that people are frightened of diphtheria, people can die, you must understand that. She was frightened of diphtheria too. They were terrified my brother would get it too of course, but no he didn’t, thank goodness.

It was a dreadful thing and when I got older I learnt a lot more about it. Some of those terrible scenes were enacted in the movies and so on where a child was dying and tracheotomies, emergency tracheotomies were performed on kitchen tables. Perhaps a kitchen table was moved in when I had my operation, who knows. It was just dreadful, a dreadful disease and I have to respect the fact that I was very, very fortunate. It is good to think that there are physicians about who have never seen a case of diphtheria. It is rather wonderful it has been eliminated.

I am very glad that today children can be immunised and certainly had no hesitation in having my own children immunised against it. Particularly, as I said, I found out afterwards what a killer this particular complaint is.”

This story has been edited from the transcript of a recorded interview with Joy and is posted on IMAC’s website with her permission.