Friday, 5 October 2012

Patricia Senior (nee Tasker) recalls her 1959 hospital stay

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, so they say.  My stay in a children’s orthopaedic hospital certainly proved to be very character forming.

It was in 1959, very soon after sitting my Eleven Plus exam, that I was admitted to Leeds General Infirmary for ‘investigations’.  I had been diagnosed with Stills Disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis that affects both children and also adults, as a baby.  I had been getting progressively unwell and struggling with very stiff and painful knee joints every morning, and after school.  They told me I would be in hospital for a few days. They lied! After taking some kind of sample from my right knee whilst I was under a full anaesthetic in Leeds General Infirmary for a few days, they then dispatched me to the Marguerite Hepton  Orthopaedic Hospital  for children where I was to be an inmate for almost a whole year.  When I was finally discharged I was able to join my friends at Roundhay High School in the September  as we all began the second year.

I recently found that this blog exists, which has contributions from various people who were patients and staff at the hospital from the opening  in 1910 to its closure in 1985.  The most recent contribution on the blog at the time of my writing is by Susan Lee  who was a patient there twice in the 50s and I too recall singing the same song.

Seeing this brought back  a few more long forgotten memories as during my time on the girls ward a couple of years later we too used to sing this same song.  Many of the things mentioned in other people’s posts also were familiar to me, despite the fact that many recount experiences from an earlier decade!
I remember feeling quite betrayed when they took me off to Thorpe Arch, but I don’t remember arriving there and settling in.  It must have been quite horrible though.  We were only allowed visitors on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  I was probably more fortunate than many since my parents had a car and could visit more easily than those who had to travel by bus.  But my dad worked at M&S and so I doubt they came Saturdays.  I was under the care of Mr Clarke and I remember groups of suited men descending and making  rounds of their patients once a week.  I had my right leg up in traction by then and was well and truly tethered to my bed.  The doctors used to put their hands on my knees to feel for inflammatory heat.  This continued for several months until one day they decided that the right knee had improved, and it was released from traction, but that same day they strung up the other leg!  I was almost suicidal for a while.

Other people have written more technically about the procedures and types of splints etc used in those days.  I believe the bed with its overhead frame to which my splinted leg was attached by means of weights and pulleys was called a Balkan Beam.  All I know was that when the nurses weren’t looking I would sometimes haul myself upright with my arms and stand for a short while on the leg that wasn’t held straight in the splint contraption.  The very worst thing though, as someone else mentioned, was when they changed the long strips of elastoplast which ran down either side of the leg from top of the thigh to the ankle.  Getting this elastoplast off was excruciatingly painful.  Others have written about the regular rubbing down with methylated spirits we received to prevent bedsores;  I’d completely forgotten this routine until reading their accounts.

I remember there was some kind of bathroom at the top end of the ward where we were taken and bathed occasionally.  I hated it as we used to be placed on a table prior to being bathed and this put us level with some kind of window out onto the ward.  As a young teenager I was very embarrassed by the lack of privacy.  The beds on the girls ward were arranged so that the youngest, babies and toddlers I think, were at the bathroom and office end whilst the oldest girls, of which I was one, were housed at the furthest end.  The entire length of the ward had opening French windows on one side, and my bed was on that side.  And against the very bottom end wall stood an old upright piano, which I don’t recall anyone ever playing.  Above it was a small wall-mounted television, but again I don’t remember watching it.  Much of the time we were outdoors, wheeled on our beds through the French windows onto the ‘veranda’ outside.  In retrospect it was more like a patio, but I doubt that word existed back then.  We spent most days out there, in all weathers.  How we survived the onslaught of fresh air I don’t know.  We had our meals out there, and our lessons.  I quite enjoyed the schoolwork, and did a lot of drawing and painting and other crafts, sometimes for entering into competitions.
I still have a copy of the 50th Anniversary booklet that was produced in 1960.

This picture taken from an earlier post shows the Girls Ward, the one I was on.

When our families visited they would wheel us around the grounds in our beds. Here is a photo of me with some of my relatives one visiting day.

This was the only time we got to see the boys, which created quite a bit of excitement for us older girls.  We sometimes got pushed as far as the field where there stood an old gypsy type caravan.  And there were rabbits in hutches in another part of the grounds.  Many of my aunts worked at Terrys and Rowntrees in York so they would bring lots of ‘waste’ sweets for me but all these had to be handed in and we were allowed to choose stuff when it was given back to us in moderation during a daily sweet round.  This was a sensible way to avoid problems as keeping our weights within healthy bounds as bedridden but growing children must have been a priority.  I was on cortisone medication so I swelled up quite a bit during my time there as a side effect of the drug, something not ideal for when I eventually had to learn to walk again!   I think I enjoyed most of the food, with the exception of the Allbran which we were forced to eat most morning for breakfast.  Just the thought of it even today still makes me retch!  But no doubt they had to keep our immobile young bodies ‘regular’ and I recall this was a major pre-occupation.  Sister used to advise my mother to bring in Pontefract Cakes to feed to me, and they always did the trick!
The song I quoted at the beginning uses the words, “that’s the way we family down Thorpe Arch way”, and this is very apt in my opinion.  Some of us were there for several months, which was long enough, but others had spent years in hospital.  We were a family.  We didn’t have much but we did have each other, and some friendships were very strong and therapeutic.  My closest friend was called Janet.  I think she had spent seven or eight years of her life in and out of hospital.  She had brittle bone disease.  When new girls came in we used to warn them not to let their bedcovers trail onto the floor or the spiders and cockroaches would climb up during the night.  Fortunately none of us relaised at the time that cockroaches can fly!  We were only aware of them scuttling about on the floor in the dark.  You could catch a glimpse of them by our or the nurses torchlights, and you could hear the occasional one crunch under a nurse’s foot as they did their nightime rounds to check that we were all asleep.  It was during the hours of darkness that I would catch glimpses of a little field mouse that seemed to inhabit the piano as he was often to be seen sitting on one of the piano’s feet.  Daytimes too provided us with opportunities to appreciate local wildlife, usually birds, which were frequent visitors around our beds.  Insects too played a regular part of our daily outdoor lives.  I read in one of the posts on the blog about someone finding a dead wasp inside there plaster cast when it was cut off.  My memorable wasp experience was more direct, one day I sat on one!

We used to plan all kinds of mischief.  Prior to April Fools Day we devised a complex charade which involved me pretending to have fallen of the bed (maybe I was no longer attached to the frame by this point?) onto the floor with blood coming from my leg.  I don’t remember whether or not we actually carried it out but some time , probably after that date, there was a terrible accident in the night which was quite frightening.  One of the nurses somehow walked or fell through a glass door further back in the building and was badly injured.  There was a lot of noise and commotion.  I think she was ok in the end.  Other frightening or exciting events were when prisoners or inmates from the adjacent open prison and remand home went awol and teams of prison officers and police would go past our French windows in the night with torches searching for the escapees.
Despite the fact that I spent my 12th birthday and Christmas 1959  in the hospital I remember little of any celebrations for either, although I’m sure there must have been some.  I think my right leg was up in traction for about six months, then my left one for another three or more.  After that I was learning to walk for quite a while so that my time as a  patient there stretched to almost a full year.  I don’t have any record of my actual dates of admission and discharge.
I mentioned the existence of boys earlier.  They were accomodated on a different ward but we did see them at weekends when our visitors took us out in our beds.   We girls used to be quite interested and pester the nurses for information as to the different boys names and ages.  Most of the nurses were very young themselves and happily went along with our curiosities, to the extent that they would act as go- betweens carrying ‘love’ letters.  I still have some of these and intend to add them to this post when I can finally locate there whereabouts!
There is a post on the blog made in 2008 from a Malcolm Benson who was a nine year old patient during the same time I was there.  He is able to recall the names of some of the staff which he quoted, and thanks to him,  I am delighted now to be able to recognise and remember the names of the following three  nurses Woodhead, Huddleston and Rennie.
At some point they set me free from my bed and then I had to relearn to walk.  I don’t remember getting much specialist help on the ward, but as soon as any of us became vaguely mobile there was stuff to do.  We had to pick up dropped items for our fellow patients, and fetch and carry a few things, I don’t remember the details.  The best thing was though that I got sent by ambulance once a week to Harrogate Spa Baths for hydrotherapy.  This was the highlight of my life.  The ride there and back in the ambulance represented freedom from school and confinement, and my mother met me at the baths and spent a few hours with me before and after treatment.  The pool itself was bliss, and instead of being put in the sling, if I was lucky the hydrotherapist, who was a lovely young man, lifted me in and out of the water.  After my treatment and exercises the attendants wrapped me in lovely warm towels and left me to rest for twenty minutes tucked up on a bed in a little cubicle.  Then I joined my mum, who pushed me in a wheelchair into the cafe where we had coffee and cakes and were entertained by the palm court orchestra which played in the cafe in the centre of the lovely old building, before I was eventually returned to my ambulance and transported back to Thorpe Arch.  It was a lovely day out.
Learning to walk again though was hard, and when I eventually went home I was only just able to manage, but I was able to finally begin high school in September of 1960, after missing the entire first year of secondary education.  It was a bit tricky fitting in as a latecomer but I picked up everything well, except French, which I hated and never felt happy trying to speak.  I was back, just in time to participate in the Swinging Sixties.  Just three years and a couple of months  later I was backstage at an Arts Ball in Bradford talking to the Rolling Stones, but that’s a whole other story……

To read more of Trish's interesting and challenging story visit her blog here.

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