Mary Berry has a regal demeanour that is steeped in British symbolism and heritage. It is not a coincidence that she is tied to franchises that celebrate Britishness such as Britain’s Best Home Cook and the Great British Bake off, a show she took part in for six years. In fact, Mary is so wedded to the idea of Britishness it is hard to imagine life without her.
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It may come as a shock to know that Mary faced a life-threatening health battle as a child that could have robbed the nation of her talents.
In her autobiography, Mary revealed that she was struck down with polio at the age of 13.
The TV judge divulged that her health took a turn for the worse after complaining about a headache and sore throat.
Mary was then subjected to drastic measures in a bid to contain the disease, revealing she was placed in a glass isolation room for a month.
She said: “Alone and feeling terrible, the one thing I wanted was my mother. But my parents had to stay on the other side of the glass, only able to smile and mouth words of reassurance.”
Mary added: “During their visits, I was in floods of tears. I just couldn’t understand why Mum wasn’t coming in to give me a cuddle, to talk to me and comfort me.”
Fortunately, she recovered from polio but the disease has left her with a permanent curvature of the spine and a slightly misshapen left hand.
As the NHS explains, polio is a serious viral infection that used to be common in the UK and worldwide.
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Most people with polio don’t have any symptoms and won’t know they’re infected, but for some people, the virus causes temporary or permanent paralysis, which can be life threatening, notes the health body.
Cases of polio in the UK fell dramatically when routine vaccination was introduced in the mid-1950s but the infection is still found in some parts of the world, and there remains a very small risk it could be brought back to the UK.
How do I know if I have it?
“Most people with polio won’t have any symptoms and will fight off the infection without even realising they were infected,” explained the NHS.
A small number of people will experience a flu-like illness three to 21 days after they’re infected, however.
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Symptoms can include:
- A high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
- A sore throat
- A headache
- Abdominal (tummy) pain
- Aching muscles
In a small number of cases, the polio virus attacks the nerves in the spine and base of the brain, which can cause paralysis, usually in the legs, that develops over hours or days, notes the NHS.
“The paralysis isn’t usually permanent, and movement will often slowly return over the next few weeks and months,” explained the health body.
It added: “But some people are left with persistent problems. If the breathing muscles are affected, it can be life threatening.”
Although polio often subsides quickly without causing any other problems, it can sometimes lead to persistent or lifelong difficulties, as in Mary’s case.
“A few people with the infection will have some degree of permanent paralysis, and others may be left with problems that require long-term treatment and support,” explained the NHS.
These can include:
- Muscle weakness
- Shrinking of the muscles (atrophy)
- Tight joints (contractures)
- Deformities, such as twisted feet or legs
There’s also a chance that someone who’s had polio in the past will develop similar symptoms again, or worsening of their existing symptoms, many decades later, notes the NHS.
Mary has not found her long-term problems to be an impediment, however: “I manage well, and have the perfect excuse never to darn socks.”
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