Horse with the text Family of 13 Children, Polio, Losing a Parent, Fairfield Hospital, Career in Victoria Police, Breeding Racehorses, Beating Cancer   Recognising senior Victorians logo and image

If 89-year-old Douglas Willingham had his time again, he’d would be more appreciative of his mother who was widowed when he was just eight, and the youngest of 13 children. ‘Mum said she just wanted to survive long enough to see us kids grown up and on their own feet. None of the boys went to jail, including me, so she did pretty well.’

Paralysed by polio

His mum’s efforts were all the more inspiring given she nursed Doug at home for two-and-a-half years, after he was paralysed by polio at age five — one of thousands of Australian victims of the epidemics in the 1930s. ‘In about 1996, [former Premier] Jeff Kennett decided to close down Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital. I saw on the news the hospital being evacuated and they wheeled out two or three people in an iron lung and one of them was from 1936. That kid went into that Fairfield hospital at the same time as I did, and he spent all his life in this iron lung. Tough and all as I am, it nearly brought a tear to my eye.’

A career in Victoria Police

Doug worked for the Victoria Police for 35 years. ‘I retired, hurt, at the ripe old age of 55 and I thought, rather than sit down and die, I'd spend my superannuation and start breeding racehorses, and I did that up until the time I came [into aged care] in 2015.’ Doug married twice and had four children with his second wife, Marie. ‘I didn't give them as much time and consideration and attention as I should have, and she left home and took the kids. ‘I said to her, “If you go don't come back”.’

Beating cancer

Almost 20 years on, Doug was diagnosed with cancer and tracked down his oldest daughter to let her know. ‘Half an hour later, Marie rings up and says, “Who’s going to look after you?”. I said, “Oh, well, nobody probably. I'll look after myself” and she said, “Well, I'll come and look after you”. ‘I said, “You're joking. I haven't seen you for 18 years”.’ Marie moved into Doug’s house and cared for him for 18 months. ‘She brought me here six years ago and I said, “I don't want you coming every day to visit me” and I haven't seen her since. ‘My mum and this mad ex-wife of mine were obviously born to the same blueprint or something,’ Doug laughs.