Saturday, 26 July 2008

Andrea Kerr (nee Higgins) was a patient 1958-9, and worked at Thorpe Arch as a chef when it became an old people's home

Andrea rang me after my article appeared in the YEP. This is based on the notes I made during our talk, with some additions Andrea made when I sent her the notes.

"My auntie told me about your article in the YEP and encouraged me to get in touch.

I was a patient at the Marguerite Hepton Hospital from the age of 7 for 10 months, 1958-59, with osteomyelitis of the hip. I had an operation for it at Leeds Infirmary – I was in Ward 10. The situation was so bad they told my parents it might be amputation or death, unless they tried a new technique. My father said ‘Try anything’. I survived the operation, but they told me I’d probably end up with a built up shoe and callipers. Then they sent me to Thorpe Arch, where I was on a frame in traction for months. When I left, I had no built up shoe or calliper. All this because my school teacher made me put a dirty handkerchief which had been found in the playground over a cut on my knee – a lesson I’ll never forget, for I’ve had to live with the results ever since.

I had to have lots of painful injections of streptomycin. The liquid was very thick and the needles really big, and I was sore from having so many injections, so they’d stuff a hanky in my mouth to stop me screaming with the pain. By the time I left I was like a colander!

I remember we had classes, which were neither here nor there – the same teacher used to deal with all the girls on the ward, aged from 6 to 16. So when I got back to school I was well behind. In those days, they didn’t have the sort of teachers they have now to help you to catch up. All I remember from those classes was that the Swiss flag was the reverse of the Red Cross flag! I wonder whether we had church services – does anyone remember? There was a TV on the ward – a small screen up on an end wall that I couldn’t see.

One thing I wished was that I could find a way to stop toys falling off my bed. Staff wouldn’t pick them up but just threw them away. I remember I had a new doll for Christmas and I dropped her jacket and never got it back again – same thing with jigsaw pieces, all kinds of stuff. There was a cleaner who came most days. She was a lovely lady who was deaf. I used to write her notes to ask her to look for my toys.

I’m also left with a fear of spiders, because one day there was one in my bedpan, and when I screamed about it the nurse tipped it into my bed.

We used to get visited maybe once a week, and at weekends; no visitors were allowed on ward cleaning days. My Gran came often, even though it meant taking three different buses. There was also a railway station about 300 yards down the road, now closed down. One time there were delays to the buses, and my Gran only got to the ward around 7 o’clock, and visiting ended around 8 so she was fairly desperate. My Dad also came, but my Mum needed to stay at home with my Downs syndrome sister. I never really felt close to my Mum when I got home again.

We never set eyes on the boys, though I do remember one night when they searched under our beds because a boy had absconded from the children’s home next door – but he wasn’t there!

Digging down I can remember quite a few things: a sister washing our toe nails ready for the doctors to see; and a cook who was sacked for serving ‘food unfit for human consumption’. One thing she cooked was a sort of pudding made out of minced up vegetables, baked in a tray. I remember my very first meal on the ward: sausage, baked beans and mashed potatoes with gravy. I specially enjoyed breakfast – bacon sandwich was my favourite.

I remember Christmas there. The doctors and nurses used to come round the wards singing carols. My uncle worked for the Thrift stores, and his boss used to supply toys for the Christmas party. One Christmas Eve, one of the nurses got drunk, fell down some stairs and broke her arm. When she came back on duty, she was wearing a pot and a sling, and she’d go past our lockers filling her sling with any sweets we had on show.

I also remember Bonfire Night – we were all wheeled outside through the French doors to watch the fireworks. And once there was a visit from Coco the Clown, who gave us all signed photos of himself.

There was a sort of aviary and one night someone pulled the bars apart and the birds flew away. I was a walking patient by then, it was not long before I left, and I got blamed for doing it, but it wasn’t me.

I don’t remember the names of many people, except one girl called Mary Higgins, who was in the bed opposite mine – because my name was Higgins I suppose.

When I left hospital, there were things I wasn’t allowed to do. I was never allowed to take part in PE or games, in case it would cause another injury. I always wanted to join the police force, but I was excluded as medically unfit. Still, I always managed to earn a living – as a chef. They even suggested I shouldn’t have kids, but I’ve had four. I think we’re survivors, really. I think there are some people who just are survivors, and others who just sit back and wait for people to do things for them. For instance, since I had my stroke, I’ve got back to doing a lot of things.

About 17 years ago, when the hospital had become an old people’s home, I went back to work there as a chef. It went up and down a bit – sometimes it had a blue badge, sometimes it didn’t, depending on how the inspections went. One of the people who had nursed me when I was a child was working there again. I think she may live in Wetherby now, though I don’t remember her name. But I do remember she brought in some photos of how the hospital was, showing how the beds were. They looked quite ramshackle, as if those gates they had to stop you falling out of bed were made of orange boxes.

At the time I was working there, Leeds United used to use the playing field from the children’s home as a training ground, and I think before then it may have been used by the police.