A Childhood Experience of Hospital

Illness disrupted my childhood in 1934, when I was three. Acute stomach pains were initially diagnosed as colic. The pain became so intense that my parents had to carry me to bed on a board because my body could not tolerate bending. I was eventually admitted to hospital and remember being held down by masked nurses while an anaesthetic was administered – a terrifying experience. I also thought that this was part of the process of dying. I had heard much about death as a small child. My parents were of the generation that became familiar with death during the Great War of 1914-18, and my aunts often whispered about friends afflicted by cancer.

The surgeon’s exploratory operation revealed a ruptured appendix and the onset of peritonitis. Appendicitis was then more difficult to diagnose and treat than it is now, and was often fatal when peritonitis had set in. I was fortunate to survive, and have since had a sense of being allowed a second chance at life. My mother was pleased to attribute my survival to a nurse’s comment about the quality of her care for me.

I spent a long month in hospital, not knowing when – or whether – I might go home, in pain or discomfort for much of the time, lonely, isolated and depressed. One memorable incident was the removal of the stitches from my large stomach wound. The flesh had healed around them so well that taking them out caused both pain and an associated sensation of tugging within my body. I discovered in later life a tendency to go into shock at the sensation of an instrument moving inside me, which I attribute to this early experience.

I became so depressed that I was unable to call for help one day when I had been placed in a chair so close to an electric fire that my grey hospital dressing-gown began to scorch. Much of the problem sprang from the hospital policy, universal at the time, of not allowing parents to visit, presumably on the grounds that the children became upset when they left. In addition to experiencing physical pain and discomfort, I was also deprived of the love and presence of my parents. They were allowed to stand at the ward doors and look at me through their porthole windows. I sometimes feel that I stand behind them viewing the tiny child that I was, seated in a large chair.

I left hospital with a long scar at the right side of my stomach, with stitching on both sides that grew in adult life to resemble the legs of an enormous insect. The scar is roughened and enlarged at the base, where the wound was drained because of an abscess. The psychological scars are equally enduring. Photographs taken before and after the operation show a sturdy, fair-haired boy changed into a pinch-faced waif apparently absorbed in tormenting inner thoughts. I suffered night terrors for several years, with one particular recurring death dream. I became a compulsive nail-biter. Well into adult life the old-fashioned disinfectant smell of hospitals reawakened my childhood anxiety to the extent, occasionally, of disorientation. I still take care to explain to doctors that I was traumatised by childhood surgery in case the terrified three-year-old inside me reacts badly to a simple procedure.

Of course, what happened to me hardly compares with the years some of my contemporaries spent in hospitals for the treatment of orthopaedic problems or tuberculosis, or with the institutional experiences of profoundly disabled children such as my late friends Margaret and Jack Wymer.

John Vaizey, in Scenes from Institutional Life, gives a moving account of the impersonal cruelty of such regimes, and of the apparent indifference and occasional sadism of some of the staff. I can only admire the courage and steadfastness of those who survived such experiences.

Sir William Utting was Chief Inspector of Social Services. Among many other distinguished roles, he served on the Nolan Committee and was author of People Like Us.

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