Mary Ellen Warren

Napier resident Mary Ellen Warren hopes that availability of vaccines will ensure that there’ll come a day when the last polio victim would have walked this earth. 

Warren, in her 70’s, is based in Ahuriri, and is a polio survivor.

She is very active in post-polio groups around the region, the country and even in Australia and on October 24th Global World Polio Day, she will be placing purple vests on the sheep in the middle of Hastings to signify the commitment to a polio-free world.

Originally from Canada she believes she contracted polio when she went lake swimming for her seventh birthday.

“The water wasn’t treated back then, and I think that’s where I caught it.”

A few days later she was out roller-skating when she started to not feel well.

She was resting on the couch when her leg flopped off the side and she was shocked to discover she couldn’t lift her leg back up.

“That’s when I knew it was polio.”

Her mum rang the doctor, and a hearse was sent to collect her.

“They sent a hearse for me; I was not taken in an ambulance. They took me to the Children’s Hospital in Toronto.”

Her family were not allowed to visit her at the hospital, so they sent bunches of gladioli, and, to date, she dislikes the flowers.

She was there for approximately three weeks and “delirious” most of the time, and then transferred to Thistletown Regional Centre for Children and Adolescents where she was a “resident” for three months.

“We wore issued pyjamas. I don’t think I saw civilian clothes until we left. No one got me out of bed, we were moved by stretcher or sometimes our whole bed was moved.

“Most of the time we wore metal and wooden splints from our toes to our crotch. They were strapped firmly in place to prevent our muscles from distorting or shortening.”

She went to Thistletown completely bed-ridden and left on crutches.

“There was nine of us in the ward in total, and I started noticing that when someone was sent home a doctor and two nurses would appear with a full tray of equipment,” she said.

“They would take a large amount of blood from the patient, the blood would be separated, and gamma globulin would be extracted.”

The gamma globulin would have antibodies developed in the patient’s body, which could then prevent someone else from contracting polio.

Warren had a phobia of needles, and for more than 30 years carried the guilt of refusing to give blood to prevent someone else from contracting polio. A guilt, she has since been rightly advised, was not hers to bear.

After she left Thistletown, her spine started to curve (scoliosis).

Since then, she has had four surgeries, two for her footdrop, and two to correct her scoliosis.

“I was flat on my back for nine months after scoliosis surgery and missed three years of schooling, from grade 6 to 8, which is 12 to 14years.”

While bed-ridden she let her imagination run wild and became a self-proclaimed “mini-scientist”.

“I had a mirror which could help me see 360 degrees around me, there was a magnifying glass which I could use to magnify everything around me, and I did lot of reading. It was around the time the Dalai Lama left Tibet, and I read a lot about Tibet.”

Unsurprisingly she went on to gain a degree in Geography and a Masters in town planning.

She got married, had children and, along with her husband, moved to Hawke’s Bay in 2008 post-retirement.

“We lived in Gisborne for four years in the 80s and I loved it found the sunshine and lifestyle very healing, then we moved back to Canada.”

Post retirement they moved to Hawke’s Bay.

“I get about on a walker and drive still. I am very active in post-polio groups and the hope is that by making vaccines available there will be no more polio victims.”

Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ on Air


Join the Conversation


  1. Recommend book “What Really Makes You Ill”(2019) by Lester and Parker and their website of same name. Book’s subtitle: why everything you thought you knew about disease is wrong – provides a clue.

  2. I recall the joy in my family when the vaccine was available; I read June Opie’s book “Over My Dead Body” her polio journey, then nursed several ling term polio patients. A ghastly disease that will be great to see the end of.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *