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Life in two global pandemics

When Covid-19 reached New Zealand shores, Maggie Wyse panicked.

For the 79 year-old, who lives in a retirement home in Christchurch, it conjured up a traumatic time in her life that she had suppressed all these years.

“I was starting to think, ‘am I ever going to get out of here and why is it all happening again’.”

Maggie was a four year-old in Scotland when the polio pandemic broke out.

“To be there and be in that, it was terrible.”

When she was suspected of having polio, Maggie was put in an iron lung. Being young, her memories of that time are fuzzy - and her Mum did not wish to ever speak of it.

“I remember crying for my Mum and my aunt was a nurse, so she was the only one who was allowed to come see me. All I wanted was my Mum.”

At the age of 12, and after falling ill with polio, which rendered her unable to walk, she was put back into a lung, where she remained for six months.

It’s a time she remembers “so plainly” and one that took an emotional toll on her – and continues to do so.

“I didn’t like it one little bit. No child did. We all cried.”

“It was terrifying to be in that iron lung.”

During the six months, her family were unable to visit her in the little country hospital where she was.

She made good friends with the other children in iron lungs and lying nearby.

“We used to play games and eye spy. I still play eye spy with them in here. You could play eye spy because you could look in your mirror and see things they couldn’t see.”

“We had a lot of fun as well, it wasn’t all drudgery.”

After being released from the lung, Maggie had a three month recovery ahead of her in hospital.

Back into the world, it was an odd time to be a child. She had to wear metal braces on her legs for some time.

“People didn’t want to talk to you or touch you. You would see children being pushed round in prams, but they were older children and in steel braces.”

“Teachers would tell us not to speak to our friends. And I can see a lot of that now and in the first pandemic.

Maggie said some residents in her Park Lane retirement home were too afraid to speak to each other for fear of contracting Covid-19.

“It just took me right back to when I was a youngster.”

At 15, and at the advice of medical professionals, Maggie boarded a ship destined for New Zealand in the hope the “fresh air” would aide her recovery.

Maggie, a retired nurse, is among the residents at Park Lane Retirement home seeing out their fifth week in lockdown.

While at alert level two, family have been unable to visit village residents. Maggie’s family have made sure she is connected to the internet at all times, so they can message on her “little pad”.

For residents, the lack of connection to the outside world and loss of their independence is taking its toll.

Maggie is doing everything she can do help look after her fellow residents and keep up their spirits.

“I love to care for others.”

She has offered her sewing services to anyone that needs a trouser leg stitched up or shirts taken in and is the in-house hairdresser, while they wait for visitors to be allowed in once more.

Maggie is also offering her device to other residents, so they can connect with family online.

Having lived through two pandemics and a world war, Maggie has some sound advice on how to look after ourselves in tough times.

“Sit there, close your eyes and count to ten. Think ‘I could be doing something different, so what can I do.”

It was this thought pattern during the first lockdown that encouraged Maggie to start sewing for the other residents and creating diamond artwork.

Exercising regularly and staying connected with family is also important to her.

“Talk about things, don’t keep them build up. Talk to your friends. Talk to your family.”

When times are tough, and no matter where you are, Maggie can’t stress enough the importance of chatting to a friend or trusted confidante.

“There are quite a few in here that come to me when upset... I tell them here, ‘if you need anything, just yell Maggie and I’ll come running’.”

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