How a baby with cerebral palsy was left on our doorstep

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Quite recently I noticed an encouraging report on the television news regarding the etiology and prevention of cerebral palsy – a condition that affects 1 in every 400 babies born in Australia.

Now, I’m no medical practitioner – far from it, but I do have some intimate knowledge of cerebral palsy from when I was in my middle teens and living with my parents in Swan Hill, up on the Murray River.

I’ll have to take you back to the 1950s.

For some of you reading this, the 50s will remind you of Rock n Roll, James Dean, Square Dancing in big skirts, Audrey Hepburn, leather jackets, chocolate milkshakes in metal containers and Harry Firth of Bathurst Car rally fame.

For some of you young’uns…the 1950s might just as well have been the 1850s...far too far back to have any relevance.

Well…they had relevance to me…more than I could ever have reasonably expected as a teenager growing up in a country town.

My dad was one of only three dentists for many miles around this Mallee town and therefore his dental practice (attached to our house) was always busy and alive with the sounds of chattering teeth.

Dad was also one of the more unusual examples of his profession. He’d arrived in Swan Hill to set up his new dental practice soon after the onset of the Great Depression (sparked by the Wall Street crash of 1929). Like everyone at that time, he saw years of poverty, high unemployment and lost opportunities for personal advancement for the young.

 Now everyone’s nightmare, the dreaded toothache couldn’t care less about these social conditions; when toothache wanted to visit somebody it did, regardless of their personal circumstances.  It always amazed me just how often the victims were men of the land – market gardeners, fruit-growers and wheat ‘n’ sheep farmers.

Here is a typical conversation my dad would have on a weekend…always a weekend.

Bob:   That you Mr Cato? Bob here.
Dad:   How you doing, Bob?
Bob:   Not so good, Mr Cato. Got a toothache.
Dad:   Gee, that’s no good Bob.
Bob:   Nah, not when me trees need to be picked.
           Wonderin’ if ya could give us a hand?
Dad:   What? Fruit picking.
Bob:   Don’t be daft, Les…pullin me flamin’ tooth out!
Dad:   Sure…come on in.
Bob:   Wot…now?
Dad:   Yep
Bob:   Got no money, Les.
Dad:   That’s OK…you grow oranges don’t you?
Bob:   Yeah…but?
Dad:   Bring in a few oranges and I’ll take your tooth out.
           Fair exchange!
Bob:   Sure? You bewdy…see ya in an hour then.

And thus it was that Mr Les Cato’s Dental Bartering
Practice began.

Now, every morning before school, I’d run out our front door onto the verandah and invariably trip over bags of apples, oranges, sweet corn, asparagus…just about anything the district produced.

This particular morning I ran out and tripped over – not a bag of fruit – but a large basket. Can you imagine how taken aback I was to see a tiny baby lying in the basket?

‘Mum’ I yelled… ‘Mum, there’s a baby on our front verandah!’

‘Go to school, Nancy’ came my mother’s measured tone. But she did come to see why I was making such a ruckus.

‘Go to school and stop making up stor…’ and that’s all she got out – for she too could see that there was a very tiny new baby right there in the basket.

Within 30 seconds that baby was inside our house and the local doctor was on his way.

It would take thirty pages for me to recount the story of Tippy, the baby left on our doorstep. As much as anything, the story highlights the sort of mother I had but this is Tippy’s story and I shall attempt to condense the following 17 years into a few paragraphs.

On a first examination of the baby by our local doctor, it was apparent that she had some form of physical disability. He didn’t know what. But it was obvious that we had to find Tippy’s parents as quickly as possible, get a medical history and work out what to do from there onwards.

It turned out there was nothing sinister in the ‘dumping’ of the baby on to us. My parents and the local authorities eventually worked out who Tippy’s parents were just as they were about to contact us. It was simply a case of a young family being overwhelmed by the birth of twins, one seemingly with a physical disability when they already had a small daughter needing medical attention.  In a moment of panic, they could only think of turning to my mother for help.

It did not surprise me that these parents turned to my mother.  Every Christmas we would have ‘orphans’ at our Christmas Dinner table – ‘orphans’ being anyone Mum heard of who had nowhere else to go or no one with whom to share the festive occasion.  She would be at every school sports-day cheering us on, or cheering on the little kid who didn’t seem to have anyone there.  Her hands held the power of love and the common sense of comfort as she dished out hugs and tended to all and sundry that needed a word of encouragement, a bandaged knee or a poultice on wounded pride.

It also did not surprise me that Mum officially became the full-time Carer/ Foster Mother and I, the ‘adopted’ sister of one sunny young lady called Tippy.
Tippy, the smaller of the twins was eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Being the second twin in the birth canal, it was assumed at the time that her elder-sister-by-less-than-a-minute must have given her an almighty kick to the head as she was emerging, affecting Tippy’s physical movement and the messages her body received from her brain.

The fact that we lived almost half a day’s travel time from Melbourne did not deter my mother who immediately took it upon herself to learn as much as she could about cerebral palsy. A tiny wheelchair, a small bag of splints, bandages, an overnight bag and Tippy accompanied her to The Royal Children’s Hospital, Dame Mary Herring Centre and Yooralla for frequent visits.  Specialists such as Dame Jean McNamara were consulted until Mum knew enough to start a daily, tough physical regime of therapeutic exercises for her young charge.

The only time I ever saw my mother turn purple with rage during this time was when a young intern at one of the medical clinics suggested to her that she might be wasting her time. That Tippy would be at best, unable to walk or talk or do anything for herself and at worst be ‘no better than a vegetable!’

‘Don’t you DARE suggest such an ignorant thing to me or anyone else, ever again’ Mum said, seething with indignation. ‘This child, by the very nature of the Love she reflects…is PERFECT.  I’m going to help her physically manifest that inner perfection and YOU are going to help me.  For a start, go and gargle your brains with straight vinegar, wash your hands as though you were about to perform an operation and come back and face me when your attitude is free of imperfection.’

In his defence, we must remember that these scenes occurred in the 50s when information on cerebral palsy was scanty; but to my complete and utter surprise, the young doc went off meekly with his tail drooping and returned an hour later, gave mum a huge bear hug and worked with her from that moment on for the next three years.

Tippy was tested and found to have above-average intelligence and Mum worked with her year in and year out.  She learnt to form words in spite of a tongue and lips that would not do her bidding. She learnt to walk in calipers on little legs that did not really understand what her brain was telling them to do. She played games with me and always won the ones requiring logic then laughed when she fell down during the more physical pursuits. She became an advocate for Rights for those with Physical Disabilities and lit up any room she entered, with a smile as broad as the sunset.  It was Tippy who set me on a path of utilising my drama training by working with young people with cerebral palsy. (See pic of me (c) with young cerebral palsy patients in a Drama Class (1986).

Tippy stayed with us for 17 years and due to my mother’s tireless efforts was then able to undertake training for an independent life-style in a larger city. For all those years, her presence brought constant joy to our household; it was her gift to us for the opportunity she’d received to realize her potential.

Of all the things that Tippy learnt to do, there is no doubt in my mind that the greatest of these was her recognition that she COULD reflect the Power of Love and contribute to the world.


  1. Powerful Moving story Nancy. We need a follow up or footnotes at some stage thankyou Nancy

  2. I would love to hear from those involved in the lives of children with Cerebral Palsy, Debbie. So often, parents have to battle on with few support systems apart from the major organisations that of course do a fantastic job.

  3. Nancy I loved to hear about Tippy- and am always inspired by people with Cerebral Palsy- as I grew up with my younger, very premmy brother having it in the 60s. Marcus has an amazing "can do" attitude which made him such a plucky child and I think is the "signature" of all the CP kids I've ever known. I know that's a huge generalisation but it's true~! The Crippled Children's Society in Auckland were an amazing presence in our family's life. (Terrible name though!)

    1. I have memories of institutions with even worse names than that glad that's largely behind us now. Your description of Marcus is wonderful and as you say, so typical of these CP kids. Please stay in touch.

  4. Absolutely amazing story Nancy! I have been growing up with Cerebral Palsy since birth. Keep up the the good work!!

    1. How lovely to hear from you Mason. Thank you so much for leaving a comment. What are you up to now? I'd love to hear more of your story.