The greatest number of admissions to Prince Henry Hospital of poliomyelitis per year was in the winter of 1946, and the summers of 1950 to 1954 inclusive. The summer 1950-1 was particularly bad, as there were approximately 250 admissions in 1950 and no less than 450 in 1951; in the worst weeks of November 1950 to March 1951 there were up to forty admissions weekly.
This was a particularly distressing time for the staff of the hospital as they were caring for children and young adults, many of the latter of their own age, who were crippled to greater or less degree when in the vigour of youth, and some of whom were dying or respiratory paralysis. The risk of the staff contracting the condition was of course always present and was another cause of anxiety. However, only three nurses at the hospital contracted the disease and they, fortunately, were affected mildly.
This was a time when the spirit of service of the old Coast Hospital was seen in its finest form.
About 1945, Lord Nuffield donated a respirator to the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, which in turn presented it to the hospital. Several respirators were made in the hospital workshops, and from the experience gained, modifications and improvements were incorporated in the design. The American Society and several commercial firms in Sydney then donated an additional six new improved respirators to the hospital, to cope with the flood of patients. The machines were designed so that in event of electric power failure, they could be manually operated.
Such a sudden power failure was always a critical event to patients in the respirator, as often there were as many as eight victims at one time requiring the maintenance of artificial respiration for life. To reduce the risk, the electricity authorities had a direct power line installed from the Bunnerong Power House to the hospital. When power failure did occur, all available staff was summoned to work the machines.
Patients were kept alive in respirators for years and several, after six years, were then transferred to their local district hospitals.