Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Harry Dodgson was at MMH in the 1930s

n the pre-1939-1945 war period tuberculosis was a common illness in England. This was exacerbated by the fact that many of the cattle on the farms were tuberculosis carriers and one could get tuberculosis simply by drinking milk. The government of the day had programme of eradicating tuberculosis in cattle and so reducing the risk to humans, however it was slow going. It was whilst my father was employed on a dairy farm that I contracted tuberculosis. At the age of 12 months or so, through drinking contaminated milk, I contracted Tuberculosis of the spine. As I became more and more ill my mother took me to see many doctors, none of whom could diagnose my illness. Eventually she did find one that recognised the tuberculosis and I started to get some treatment I was in various hospitals for the next 18 months or so before arriving at Thorpe Arch.

In the early stages of my hospital life, before I went to Leeds Infirmary, I was allowed home for short stays even though I was encased in a plaster cast. This must have been quite a trauma for my parents. I vaguely recall a few occasions of my mother taking me out in a pram where I had to lay on my stomach in a plaster cast which overlapped both ends of the pram. One such memory is lying on my plaster cast, in a pram, watching a colour movie. This must have been 1935 or 1936. I recall I was in the aisle whilst my parents were sitting close by. I have no idea what the movie was.The first hospital that I can recall being in was Leeds Infirmary in Yorkshire. I must have been about three years old. I spent some months in Leeds Hospital in plaster. I have a distinct memory of lying in that hospital and seeing an airship in the sky. At that time airships were being constructed in Yorkshire near Selby. That must have been in the first half of 1937 as I was in Thorp Arch Orthopaedic hospital in by 1937 where I stayed for several years
My next memories are of being a patient in Thorpe Arch Children’s hospital. My parents were visiting me. In this hospital, on warm summer days the patient beds were often placed outdoors. My brother, Frank, who was my elder by eighteen month, was showing me spent firecrackers he had found, which had been lit the night earlier. It was probably in 1937 as I also recall clearly being told by a nurse that the fireworks had been to celebrate the jubilee so this must have been in 1937 the firecrackers had been to celebrate that event.

At the start of the war a very large munitions complex was built very close to the hospital where my father was employed as a truck driver. A new housing development for workers in the munitions complex was completed at a nearby village, Boston Spa and my parents were allocated a house there which made it quite easy for my parents to visit me in hospital.

I spent most of the war years in Thorp Arch children’s hospital. For me, life in a hospital wasn’t dull. After all, I knew of no other life. I had never been on a bus, ridden in a car, rode a bicycle or been to school or even played with other children, so to me hospital life was normal. In the hospital we had a female teacher who came daily when we were given various lessons such as arithmetic, reading and writing. In fact I read so much that I became a very good at writing and I was accomplished at spelling. However I had little knowledge of other subjects which was taught in normal schools in those days.

My teacher must have thought deeply on how to keep us occupied without being bored and so amongst other activities we were taught embroidery and knitting. We patients spent many hours knitting huge woollen stocking with very oily wool. These stockings were called Sea Boot Stockings and were issued to sailors on the winter convoys going to Russia.

Many of the hospital regulations were rather harsh compared to those of today. Parents were allowed to visit only one day each month, and that was for one hour only. Towards the end of my stay in hospital in 1943, this was extended to one hour per fortnight.

The German airforce bombed the near-by munitions factory several times during the war but surprisingly did very little damage. All the munitions storage and plant was underground. I think it was in 1940, during that hot summer, one hot sunny day all the patients’ beds had been taken outside. There was an air raid on the munitions factory and one bomb overshot and landed in the hospital grounds. I remember seeing three German aircraft flying very low, with the explosion very quickly afterwards. Although little damage was done to the hospital, it was extremely frightening for everyone. 1940 was a long hot summer and when our beds were taken outside we frequently could see the dog fights between the fighters above us. We children had no notion of the death and injuries sustained by pilots of both sides at this time. Neither had we any idea of the hardships of the civilian population. Food rationing and other difficulties were totally unknown to us patients.

One aspect of my long stay in hospital was that I did not catch any of the normal childhood ailments such as mumps, chicken pox etc. I was not until my eighteenth year that I caught chicken pox and when I was twenty five I caught measles. Other diseases such as mumps and scarlet fever etc I never did have. Although most of the patients, like I, had spent years in hospital which had become a normal existence, we must have wanted go home. So it was either 1939 or 1940 that, together with another boy, I decided to run away from the hospital. I think we both had some idea of going home although neither of us had any idea of where home was or how to get there. In addition neither of us could walk. I cannot recall how we got out of bed onto the floor but do I remember crawling away, finishing up in a field only several hundred yards away. Apparently we were not missed untilafter dawn when this caused a furious uproar with the police being called and our parents were notified that we were missing. Apparently my mother, when being told that I was missing from the hospital, got on the nearest bicycle she could find and rode at a fast pace the few miles to the hospital. I was told that her language was a little heated when she faced the hospital staff. I have no idea how long it took for the authorities to find us two run-aways.

I think it was in 1941 that it was decided to operate on me to cure my tuberculosis. The surgeon that performed the procedure was a Mr Payne. I clearly recall fighting the ether as the anaesthetic was administered. To this day I remember the nightmares I had whilst I was unconscious during the operation. I also recall waking from the anaesthetic and seeing my mother standing by the bed, after the operation I spent many months in plaster. Plaster sores were a frequent result of being encased in plaster for a long time. These sores were very painful and had a terrible smell.

The picture above was taken in the summer of 1940 when I was eight years old. My mother is on the left. The soldier in uniform is my Uncle Bob who was later killed in the war. His wife, my aunt Mary, is standing behind him. I believe that the woman on the right is my aunt Muriel, Shortly after the above photo was taken she joined the WAAF. In 1945 she married an American G.I. and went to the USA.

The operation on my spine appears to have been a success in that my spine has never given me any trouble at all since the operation. However it did leave me with a large lump in the centre of my back which has affected my entire life, not always for the worse either. There have been very few instances during my life where my spinal disability has prevented me from doing exactly what I wanted or from going wherever I wished. I have however often noticed that it has made a distinct difference with the response I noticed from some people. However I learnt very quickly that such people were not worth my knowing.

At the age of 10 I finally was discharged from Thorp Arch Children’s hospital. I was provided with a brace or corselet made of leather and an aluminium frame. This covered me totally from the shoulder to the hips. It was not very comfortable and I was glad to be able to finally shed it about a year after leaving the hospital.

As I could not walk very well or very far, I had a wheel chair and my brother Frank would push me to the village school each day. I have never ridden on a bus, rode a bicycle or even played with other children. To this day I remember my first day at school when I was ten years old. I knew nothing about what I had to do or what happened in school and so quite a few things I did and said caused roars of laughter from my schoolmates; however I was not badly treated by the other children and soon learned the ropes. The school was the old Boston Spa Village School in a sandstone building and consisted of a few rather small classrooms. We had to walk perhaps half a mile from home to the school. Or rather my brother did-I was pushed there and back in my wheelchair by him.

In spite of the long time I was in hospital I have had a remarkably healthy life. After leaving Thorp Arch until I reached the age of 55 the only health problems I had was the occasional cold, I have never even had a headache. In spite of my disability I have travelled the world. I have lived in several parts of England. Spent some years in Africa and travelled very widely throughout Asia and the Americas. I have a wonderful wife and we have lived in Australia for the past 34 years. I consider myself a very lucky man.

29 April 2008 13:33