Polio Profile - Robert Bullians
November 1916 ~ 9th February 2005
My name is Robert
Kenneth Bullians. I was born on 2nd Nov 1916. I was told that I
contracted polio when I was four and a half years old, and I do
remember having extreme pain in my leg.
The doctor's first
diagnosis was that I was just very bad tempered. I was soon shifted to
Taumarunui Hospital. My only memory there was of a very kind lady who
brought me a large bag of peanuts. I offered some to the nurse but she
immediately confiscated them. So the cure for polio was: "Don't eat
I was sent to King
George Hospital, Rotorua, where patients from this area went. There
were about 20 or 30 boys and the same number of girls.
My first memory there
was being strapped on my back to the bed and not being able to move for
about a year. I complained to a doctor about that many years later, but
he told me it was done to make sure I didn't have a bent spine.
There were also returned servicemen from the First World War at the
hospital for treatment. Two of them came from King County and knew my
parents. They took me out quite a lot and were very kind to me.
We did go home for a
fortnight at Christmas, but otherwise we didn't see our parents. One
Christmas I had chicken-pox so I had to stay in the isolation ward. The
people of Rotorua were very kind to us. I must mention the Maoris in
particular. Certain times of the year they took us out in a boat on
Lake Rotorua, and to get blackberries. They had to carry some of us.
All round, we were a fairly happy lot of kids.
Buckets of bread and
milk were brought into the ward for breakfast. The milk was very white
and I am sure it was skim-milk, which was in those days used as pig
food. Now days it is known as white top and recommended for health
reasons. Did we lead the way? One boy who had both arms paralysed used
the spoon with his feet. We admired him as he usually finished his
In about 1921 I was allowed out of bed and mixed with the other boys.
We all had paralysed limbs. I had complete paralysis from the hip down
my left leg.
consisted of daily vigorous massage by the nurses, followed by bathing
in hot pools. We also had electrical stimulation of our paralysed
muscles. For a short while I was fitted with a splint of straight iron
right up to my waist. I could only either lay down or stand up. I
remember the first time I went to the toilet, or tried to! I must have
found some way around it as I don't recall having further problems.
Otherwise, I had an ankle splint and two walking sticks which I had
when I eventually went home from hospital.
I left Rotorua when I was seven and went to Taumarunui school. We lived
on a small farm three miles from town. I had two brothers and three
sisters. I was the fourth child. We went to school on horse-back. At
first I rode with one of my sisters, and then on a pony of my own.
In those days we
assembled and marched into our class-rooms, and had daily drill
sessions. I was told to go straight to my room as I couldn't keep up
with the other kids.
One of the conditions
made when I left hospital at 7 years of age was that I could come back
to hospital at eleven and they would transfer muscles from my good leg
to the other one. When the time came, my parents let me make the
decision. I said "NO" and later learned it was the right decision.
I must have been a
bit above average at school work, probably because I didn't indulge in
any sport and spent more time learning. By the time I got to High
School I had caught up to the children my own age.
In the mid 1920's you
either failed or passed, and it was not unusual to skip a class
especially if there were too many in that standard. Quite often there
were 70 or 80 in one class.
I remember a few
Polio epidemics, and sometimes the schools would be closed well into
March after the Christmas holidays. It was known as Infantile Paralysis
then, and how I hated those words. They conjured up in my mind
something that backward children got.
My mother died when I
was fourteen. My father worked at a sawmill about 30 miles away and
only came home most weekends. We children, those of us still at home,
made our own decisions.
The early thirties
were the middle of the depression. With my disability I was not
eligible for any Government employment. I therefore left school after
two years at High School and decided to milk a few cows by hand on our
Free from Sticks
I soon found that the walking sticks were a severe handicap. When the
chance for an excursion rate train trip to Rotorua came along, I went
to see the surgical bootmaker at the hospital. I asked if he could make
me a splint that would stop my knee from bending. Although he did not
think it would be a success, he made one up for me. It was straight
irons with a support ring at the top, knee hinges had not been thought
of then. Life was made for me! I even threw away the sticks. Oh the
pleasure of being able to roll and light a cigarette while walking
There were small
inconveniences, like the first time I went to the pictures and was
shown a seat in the middle of the row and no way could I sit down.
Thereafter I asked for a seat on the outside row.
Farm Life and
My farming life, jumping on and off horses, wrestling sheep and calves,
was very hard on my splints, and often I relied on mechanics and
welders to repair them. I went to various places to have splints made
or repaired: Hospitals in Auckland, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Wellington,
Tauranga and now Hamilton. The metals they use now are much more
At one time I went to
a private firm, Sylvester and Steed, for splints and boots. The then
Minister of Health, Mabel Howard, was able to get partial assistance to
help me with the cost.
Shortly after the
start of the war, I was examined for military service. The doctor's
report was: "unfit, left leg emaciated." I didn't like that
description, but I suppose the truth hurts sometimes.
I even got my driving
license. I had an old 1923 Hupmobile and I managed to work the clutch,
accelerator and brake with one foot. The traffic office gave me the
licence, I think he was just glad to get out of the car.
While in Rotorua on
that trip, I met Sister Snodgrass, one of the nurses from the hospital.
She threw her arms around me and said "Robbie Bullians, you're still
alive". The fact that I never met any one from the Ward I was in might
mean that most passed away.
It was on that excursion, about 1934 that I first met Frances. She was
a lovely girl but she loved dancing, so we each went our own ways for a
few years. I never forgot how kind she had been to me when I was on
walking sticks. In 1942 we were married and had a happy and eventful
My wife Frances was a
help and encouragement to me. She was one of the unsung heroes and
heroines who marry people with disabilities. In the 1960's we
sub-divided a small farm I had near the hospital, hence Bullian's
Avenue and Kenheath Place named after our 2 children Ken and Heather.
We had a rather nice house built on an elevated section and Frances was
very happy there.
Shortly after our
Golden Wedding Anniversary Frances developed Alzheimer's. I looked
after her until about 3 years ago when I had to go into hospital.
Frances was shifted to a Rest Home. She passed away in September last
year (2002) at 86 years of age.
I have had a reasonably successful farming career. Our farm being close
to town, I became involved in town supply of milk. About 1948 a Company
was formed and I was made Chairman, a position I held for about 30
years. I still attend monthly meetings.
Looking back over my
life there are many things I have to be thankful for. First, that I got
polio so young. Because if I had got it later in life I would have
already known another way of living. Secondly, that I was denied an
inside office job, and so I was able to build up a healthy body
enabling me to fend off the hardships of approaching old age. And how
glad I am that there was no sickness benefits or dole in 1932 when I
The invention of the
hinged knee for my splint was great. But oh the joy and pleasure of
that first straight iron splint was terrific. No words can express my
feelings when I was able to walk with both hands free.
I have had good
health right into my eighties. Since then I have had a laryngectomy and
need to block the hole in my throat to talk. What was my good leg has
got weaker (maybe post polio syndrome) and need two walking sticks to
get round again, or a wheelchair around the house. Several years ago I
had an operation for carpel tunnel in my right hand, and now I have it
in my left one. I have lived on my own since Frances went to the rest