When I was nine-going-on-ten – nearly 70 years ago! – I was hospitalised for six months with rheumatic fever. There was an epidemic in Aberdeen, Scotland, at the time. And there were two long wards of children. Those of us with rheumatic fever had grey gowns, and those of us with something else had red gowns. I never discovered quite what all those something elses might be.
Two boys, one in red and one in grey, stand out in my memory. Tommy Nobbs had a red gown. He had the bed opposite mine, across the central passageway, so I always had a fairly good idea of what he was up to. He was probably seven or eight, and mischievous. He did not like being in hospital, nor did he like staying in bed most of the time. He was allowed to move around a bit, and was directed to the children’s room, with its toys and books, and sometimes to the ward kitchen. But these weren’t enough for our Tommy. He used to lie angelically in bed, waiting until the nurses were occupied in other areas. Then he’d squirm out of his bed and slide under other beds, poking the unhappy occupant. We couldn’t yell at him, because that would have brought the staff running, and result in DISCOVERY.
Nothing kept Tommy quiet, neither threats nor scoldings, nor lack of sweets, until Sister (aka she-who-must-be-obeyed) decreed that Tommy’s gown would be the shortest one she could find. Though Tommy was fairly small and also quite uninhibited, that gown barely covered his bum, and (whisper, whisper) other bits. That succeeded in keeping him in bed for a bit longer!
The other thing I remember about Tommy was his incredible skinniness. Obviously a victim of malnutrition, his veins were thin. When we had our weekly blood tests Tommy had to be held down, sometimes by two nurses, while a third would struggle to extract blood from his skinny arm. He yelled, big time.
The other boy, Stuart or Stewie – came from the local orphanage. He had the grey gown signifying rheumatic fever, but he also seemed to speak through a hole in his throat. He couldn’t get up because of the rheumatic fever, and neither could I, so I couldn’t ever quite work out what was happening. But certainly conversations with Stewie were minimal. He must have been the quietest patient on the ward.
What we all noticed, though, was that every parent who visited the ward stopped for a word with Stewie and brought him things – comics, sweets, when allowed and fruit, and numerous birthday gifts.
I don’t know what happened to either of these boys. Tommy was discharged before I was. Going home was meant to be a great thing, but I don’t remember Tommy being very enthusiastic. Stewie, I suppose, returned to his orphanage.
My great mate was Gillian. Her big trick was to lean over to my bed when I was getting my hair washed and tickle my feet. To get our hair washed, without moving from bed, we had to stretch across our beds, heads poked down into bucket, water poured over from a can. So your feet were vulnerable, and dear Gillian made the most of it. Not popular! With me or the nurses.
I retaliated. When she got her hair washed, I tickled back … until, eventually, the nurses got wise to us. After that they made us lie across the bed with our heads towards each other, so neither Gillian nor I could reach the other’s feet.
The nurses were severe! No sweets tonight!
Well, what was one night without a lolly?
The nurses could be great fun, except when Sister was around, and when Matron did her morning tour. Then they became upright robots, hands behind backs, aprons straight. I watched Carry on Doctor the other night, and saw Hattie Jacques as Matron – it looks funny now but then, my goodness, the power of that position was immense! We were all terrified of Matron.
However great the nurses were, greater still were the ward maids. They cooked breakfasts, and morning and afternoon teas, in the ward kitchen. My favourite was Nora. Marvelous, unforgettable Nora, whose porridge was beautifully smooth and NEVER lumpy, and … the best thing of all was that when she brought your toast, instead of the usual puddle of jam in the middle of the soppy bread, the toast was beautiful, crisp, and had jam spread right up to the crusts. Blessed be the name of Nora!
People used to be sorry for us, stuck in hospital like that. But think! We were well cared for with good staff, and good food, we were getting better, medicated and nursed, and we had a great time.
Beatrice Hale is a social worker and writer who lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.