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Grafton's miracle child has lived a healthy life

Little Judith Davidson (now Piercy) on her 9th birthday at Grafton Hospital in 1957, wearing her special dress.
Little Judith Davidson (now Piercy) on her 9th birthday at Grafton Hospital in 1957, wearing her special dress. Daily Examiner

JUDY PIERCY should not have survived to see her ninth birthday, but the 'miracle child' saved by Grafton's iron lung machine and the city's dedicated doctors and hospital staff in 1956 did not just survive the deadly tetanus that was expected to kill her, but has gone on to have a life remarkably free of medical problems.

Now 69, the Ballina resident said when her mother showed her the iron lung machine in Grafton's Schaeffer House museum, she was amazed that such a contraption had kept her alive.

"I don't remember anything about being in the iron lung, just what my parents told me, because I was unconscious the whole time," Judy said.

"The first time I actually saw the machine I was grown up and married."

She said as a child she was never told anything about her condition or treatment.

But Judy does remember the events that led up to her being put into the iron lung and the long months of recovery which followed her emergence from the machine.

She was running about barefoot in a friend's backyard when she ran through a new pansy bed fertilised with horse manure from a nearby stables and cut her foot on a cut-off wooden post from an old clothesline.

The small injury seemed to need nothing more than Mercurochrome and a Band-aid.

Days later, Judy was riding her bike with her sister when she found herself unable to lift her leg over her bicycle, so pushed it home, had a bath and went to bed.

By the time her mother brought a tray of dinner to her bedroom, Judy could not speak. She had developed lockjaw and was rushed to Grafton Hospital, where she was eventually placed in the iron lung, which had been made and donated to the hospital by British industrialist Lord Nuffield.

Judy said while she was in the iron lung, Grafton suffered an overnight blackout and hospital maintenance man Ted Bent worked all night to manually operate the pump which kept her alive.

It would be months and 1956 would have turned into 1957, before Judy would be aware of her surroundings and more months before she would be out of danger.

Even after she was taken out of the iron lung, having survived severe muscle spasms, collapsed lungs, double pneumonia, a tracheotomy, the use of curare as a muscle relaxant and bed sores, she had to endure months of tube feeding and then had to learn to walk again.

Judy recalled bursting into tears of fury when she woke up to see the nurse on duty beside her bed eating her own favourite meal of spaghetti on toast while she was condemned to a diet of Aktavite and egg flips, fed through a nasal tube. A nurse was with her 24 hours a day.

Her first real food, a coddled egg and tiny crumbs of bread spooned into her mouth, was 'heavenly" Judy said.

When she first opened her eyes, her vision was blurry and the huge pile of get-well cards, which filled a baby's bath, remained fuzzy outlines.

Her father had promised her anything she wanted when she got better.

"My mouth must have tasted terrible, because I asked for a tooth brush and a packet of Juicy Fruit.," Judy said

"If I'd known he's said "anything" I'd have asked for a horse or a piano".

No pony or piano, but she did receive two white rabbits, a 'get well' present promised and delivered by her grandmother.

After an initial visit by a team of Sydney specialists, Judy's care was in the hands of Grafton doctors, among whose duties was daily blood testing which left the little girl less than impressed and caused her to sack poor Dr Eric Holland as chief blood tester, but which continued until doctors finally found the tiny splinter which was causing her continuing infection with the Clostridium tetani bacteria.

The doctors later wrote up her case for an article in the UK medical journal The Lancet.

As her recovery progressed, Judy said she became the spoiled pet of the whole hospital.

Before she was able to walk again, she was wheeled everywhere in her wheelchair, from the wards to the gardens to the nurses' quarters to the maternity section to nurse the babies.

"I thought I was 'it on a stick" Judy said

Her ninth birthday on April 2, 1957 was a gala occasion, even though she could not eat the cake.

But she was able to wear one gift, a beautiful burgundy coloured dress trimmed with coffee lace, which came with a satin petticoat embroidered with rosebuds and matching knickers.

The dress was made by Mary Braithwaite, the wife of the hospital administrator.

Judy said when she was ready to leave hospital, old Dr Holland told her parents:

"If you don't take her home and give her a good smacking when she needs it, you will have a right little miss on your hands."

"I can't imagine a doctor saying that today", Judy said.

"They were worried about brain damage, so every day they would ask me questions or ask me to count, but I got through okay and I did very well at school.

"The school had made me skip a year, which meant I left all my friends behind, but when I went back I had to repeat six or seven months, so I was back with all my friends again, which I was happy about."

"The kids at school said 'she's a ghost, she died and came back to life,'."

In the last 60 years Judy has been free of medical problems and has had only two visits to hospital- once to have her son and once to have a bunion fixed.

"I had it all at one go," she said.

Topics:  belinda scott coffs clarence iron lung judith piercy seniors newspapers


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