Cockburn's 'Broken Boy,' a Memoir of Survival War correspondent Patrick Cockburn took a break recently from covering global conflicts to write about a life-and-death struggle of his youth. Cockburn is a polio survivor. The Broken Boy is his story.

Cockburn's 'Broken Boy,' a Memoir of Survival

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Patrick Cockburn, who writes for the British newspaper The Independent, has covered Iraq for over 25 years, been to every major war zone of the last two decades, co-written a book on Saddam Hussein, and is a member of an Anglo-Irish family, a member of what was in the past in Ireland once called the Protestant ascendency. He's written a new book about another aspect of his life his readers might not know of, but his friends and colleagues do. He's a survivor of the last polio epidemic in Ireland, which struck in the spring of 1956. His new book, "The Broken Boy," brings to life what it was like to contract polio in a rural, secretive Irish world.

Patrick Cockburn, thanks for just coming back from Baghdad and joining us.

Mr. PATRICK COCKBURN (Author, "The Broken Boy"): Good to talk to you.

LYDEN: Tell us a little bit about this last polio epidemic of 1956. Wasn't the Salk vaccine available by then in Ireland?

Mr. COCKBURN: It wasn't. It had just become available in the US. But, unfortunately for me and many others, it hadn't reached ou--it hadn't really reached western Europe in 1956 when the epidemic started in Cork. I think we were the last serious epidemic in western Europe or the US.

LYDEN: What made you decide now at this stage in your career, after so many decades of being a foreign correspondent, to write about your own past and to write about polio even as you were covering Baghdad?

Mr. COCKBURN: I think it was 1998, I was in Baghdad, and you may remember then that there was--it was under President Clinton that there was a bombardment of Baghdad with missiles called Desert Fox. And I was going around afterwards--hospitals--talking to children who had been injured, and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd spent quite a lot of my childhood in hospital. And actually, I knew more about Baghdad then I knew what had happened to me, so I decided I'm going to look into it. And I started researching. I realized, also, that doctors and nurses who'd been involved were passing away and if--unless I did it quickly there'd be no witnesses left.

LYDEN: Much of the information about this epidemic in rural County Cork was suppressed at the time, wasn't it? Was much known about what was going on?

Mr. COCKBURN: The local papers--this was pre-television in Ireland--covered it, but they covered it very carefully until about halfway through the epidemic. Then my father had always told me that the local advertisers--many of the big stores went to the local papers and said, `Look, you're killing us. You're ruining us because of these reports of the epidemic.' And the paper said, `Yeah, but there is an epidemic.' And the businessmen said, `Well, look, we're your advertisers. You go on reporting the epidemic, we'll stop advertising.' So looking at the papers at that time, suddenly reporting of the epidemic stops. There was nothing in the papers at all. Anybody reading the newspapers would have thought that it was a completely normal situation.

LYDEN: And how did you get it?

Mr. COCKBURN: The strange thing about polio is that at one time everybody used to get it. That--as a baby, and then you'd get self-immunized. But because I was living--we were living in the countryside, I and my brothers had never had it, so we were very vulnerable to the virus when my father, who was going backwards and forwards to London, visited the house.

LYDEN: And I think you were five or six?

Mr. COCKBURN: I was just six.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm, and so the first symptoms were for you?

Mr. COCKBURN: Just li--a bit like the flu: nausea, pains, fever, nothing very striking. In some ways it was better for me to get it during an epidemic, because the doctor was immediately suspicious of the symptoms. If there hadn't been an epidemic, he probably would have diagnosed it just--flu and I would have been worse paralyzed than, in fact, I was.

LYDEN: And how affected were you eventually by this disease?

Mr. COCKBURN: Oh, I was very affected by the disease. I was affected in that my legs were paralyzed and my back was paralyzed so I couldn't sit up. Originally, I had to wear a plastic waistcoat.

LYDEN: And other children in this hospital were dying, and you were aware of that?

Mr. COCKBURN: I was sort of aware of it in a wa--in that sort of foggy way that children sometimes are aware of great disasters. I mean, there was one child who was brought in, put in an iron lung and she thought she was being put into some sort of high-tech coffin, so she screamed and screamed until they took her out. And they kept her alive by just respiration by hand.

LYDEN: As you look back at the attempts by doctors to deal with this--I mean, how do you judge them now?

Mr. COCKBURN: They did the best they could. They didn't have the vaccine. If you didn't have the vaccine, then there was nothing really you could do to stop the disease. You could keep people alive--some people alive by using the iron lung. But their failings were often--there was no attempt to deal with the psychological impact of the trauma of getting polio on these children, and most people were very, very young who were in the ward.

LYDEN: Well, you write about a place that you went, sort of a recovery center run by the nuns later. I might be mispronouncing the name, Guron Abrayer(ph).

Mr. COCKBURN: Guron Abrayer.

LYDEN: Guron Abrayer. It's a really grim place and you're there for several months. Can you tell us about that?

Mr. COCKBURN: This was a--the hospital Guron Abrayer was a place that had been hastily adapted from a TB hospital. It was on a hill overlooking Cork; very bleak, very isolated, not enough nurses, doctors were rather distant. We were petrified of the nurses in the hospital and there were no toys. If there were any toys, they got broken immediately. One thing I--stands out very vividly in my memory that I heard one of the nurses saying to another about some little boy that if he messed his bed again that he'd be made to eat it. And I was terrified that the same thing would happen to me. And...

LYDEN: They do seem just really, really insensitive to children.

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, remember at this time Ireland was incredibly poor. I think that they probably thought the fact we had a roof over our head and had something to eat--I mean, the food wasn't much, but we didn't starve--was enough. And anything else would be excessive.

LYDEN: You've been left with a limp, a severe limp. But you interviewed other survivors who were really much worse off.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes, many of them. One man who became a businessman had to learn to sign his name using his teeth--with a pen stuck in his teeth and a special apparatus. Many others were--had their back affected, their lungs affected, their legs affected. But many people fought back. I mean, I met one man who was a farmer who was frightened that when he went home, because he was so badly crippled, that people wouldn't accept him. But actually his family--and Irish families are very strong--re-adapted the farm so he could operate the farm machinery, so he could be a working farmer. And many other people fought back against extraordinary odds.

LYDEN: What's been the reception to this book? It's already come out in England and Ireland and, as you said, almost no one had written about the polio epidemic.

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, people are very interested, partic--I mean, in Cork, in Ireland, where it happened, though nobody mentioned it for much--in print for 50 years, everybody I talked to, whether it's a taxi driver or people in a shop, would be full of details of what happened to their family at the time, the people who had survived it. There was an enormous oral tradition of everybody remembering this, but it seems to have been suppressed or censored for half a century. So I find as soon as I mention it they immediately come out with a flood of memories--this is true of England as well--of relatives of theirs who also had polio.

LYDEN: Well, Patrick Cockburn, thank you very much for joining us today.

Mr. COCKBURN: Thank you.

LYDEN: Patrick Cockburn is the author of "The Broken Boy" and a foreign correspondent for The Independent newspaper.

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