Revealed: Desperation during the polio epidemic brought troubling treatments

TORONTO — You’ve probably heard about David Onley.

He is remarkable for lots of reasons. He was Canada’s first news reporter with a visible disability. He’s been a dogged advocate for accessibility, and of course he was Ontario’s representative to the Queen as the 28th lieutenant-governor.

You probably haven’t heard about the time a man held a knife to his throat and threatened to kill him.

When Onley was three-years-old he contracted polio, a virus that left thousands of Canadian children dead or with permanent disabilities. In Onley’s case, it affected both of his arms and his legs.

He spent seven months at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. His parents could only visit once a week, and could only see him through a window. That separation had a lasting effect, perhaps as poignant as the virus itself.

“That was worse than not seeing them at all because after a while you just sort of forget about them,” Onley said from his Toronto home. “It creates major separation anxiety.”

When Onley returned home, a new anxiety set in – one that came from the doctor who was in charge of his physiotherapy.

“When he would arrive, it was like the scene out of the Exorcist,” Onley recalled. “The man with the black bag on the poster and the silhouette. I was initially terrified.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t the black bag and imposing silhouette that Onley needed to worry about. It was the doctor’s technique.

Onley was chosen for a controversial therapy, called “The Kenny Method.” It was named after Elizabeth Kenny, who was an Australian self-taught nurse credited by some as one of the pioneers of modern physiotherapy.

Her method was specifically meant for polio survivors and involved applying strips of hot, wet cloths to damaged limbs and then “exercising” them, which meant physically stretching them the way they should normally move. The premise was that it would prevent deformities and build up muscles.

It was painful. It was also effective.

Onley doesn’t recall the physician’s full name, but he certainly can see him when he closes his eyes. He was a local practitioner from Onley’s hometown of Midland, Ont. and made the trip to Scarborough to administer the Kenny Method in the kitchen of Onley’s grandparents’ home.

On the first day, the physician began the exercises, which were extremely painful. The doctor stopped and asked Onley’s parents and grandparents to leave the house.

“He didn’t want them to see him when he pulled out his knife and put it to my throat and said, ‘You move this leg or I’m going to slit your throat right now and let you bleed to death. Now move the leg,’” recalls Onley.

Onley was terrified. But the threat was effective.

“You know what? I moved the leg and I moved the arm and I moved whatever he wanted me to because I believed him,” he said.

He never spoke a word of the violent threat to anybody at the time. The treatment lasted seven days a week for months. At the end of it, Onley could ride a tricycle, walk and even run a bit.

That sort of physiotherapy wouldn’t fly today, of course. It would be headline news and result in the doctor getting his licence pulled. However, the “ultimate tough love,” as Onley describes it, worked. His parents saw substantial improvement over the months of the unorthodox treatment.

Onley is not traumatized by the memory. In fact, he speaks affectionately of his time with the doctor, who he felt genuinely cared about his rehabilitation. He can even laugh about it.

“I’ve never had difficulty following orders from that time on,” he said.

Years later, as an adult, Onley met the doctor again.

“He could see that I had definitely recovered and I knew it meant a great deal to him. We had some great conversations. He’s a great man,” says Onley.

Two years after Onley contracted the virus, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine, saving countless children from the debilitating effects of the epidemic’s worst cases. The vaccine took decades to fully take control of the disease and Canada didn’t declare itself polio-free until 1994.

That’s been the same case for most of the world, where the virus has almost completely been eradicated. However, that’s beginning to change.

COVID-19 has disrupted immunization programs around the globe and now new polio cases have begun to show up in places where the virus was once held at bay by the vaccine.

Eighty million babies have now missed critical vaccines, prompting the World Health Organization to sound the alarm and ask countries to re-instate their vaccination campaigns.

If you’re wondering if your child can still be vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic, contact your family health provider.

Onley, now 70, can’t say enough about the importance of vaccinations.

“Had the polio vaccine existed in the Tuesday before Labour Day 1953, I would have got it and my life would be completely different,” he said.

Although he went on to have a long and successful career, Onley wants people to know that just like with COVID-19, polio has long-term effects.

For him, lifelong effects include post-polio fatigue and, of course, mobility challenges. He says when a vaccine for COVID-19 comes along, no one will need to threaten him with a knife to get one.

“As soon as the COVID vaccine comes out I will get my shot.”

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