‘This blog is posted on the birthday of a beautiful young woman who was the inspiration for me to begin the journey. She inspired to the extent that I had no choice but to embark.
I was born shortly before the end of World War 2 so the National Health Service was to make its’ appearance when I was approaching four years old; in July 1948. ‘It appeared at a time when Britain saw health care as crucial to one of the “five giants” that Beveridge declared should be slain during post-war reconstruction. (want, disease, squalor, ignorance, idleness) The cataclysm of war provided an opportunity that might not have been taken in quieter times.’ http://www.nhshistory.net. I know that I had at least a couple of hospital stays while I was living in Hunslet. I had tonsils removed and I was hospitalised with scarlet fever. I was in hospital for about two weeks for each of these illnesses. Nowadays, children have tonsils removed and are home usually on the same day. Scarlet fever is something of an olden days disease being well controlled by antibiotics but I suppose these drugs were still to some extent in their infancy and being from the deprived area of Hunslet and being comparatively young, no chances were taken. Obviously, I do not know if I was in hospital as an NHS patient but I was cared for and my parents did not have the money to pay for expensive medical treatment so there must have been some financial assistance from somewhere.
Some details are missing from my memory but I know my father had a third of his stomach removed when I was a young child so he will have also been comparatively young at the time, certainly less than forty. He used to talk of having had a duodenal ulcer so if that was the reason for what was a big operation, judging by the scar he had, he certainly had a bad time. There was no ‘keyhole’ surgery at that time. I have wondered since whether there might have been some connection with war-time medications, vaccinations and the like that made his stomach vulnerable.
Looking back, I remember many cases of the failure of the pre NHS systems and I only have experience of the people who could not afford to pay for treatment. I have no idea how people were treated before but there were many situations where elderly, war wounded or mentally ill were solely dependent upon the good will and devotion of neighbours and family members. It must be remembered that in 1948, the Second World War had only been finished three years before but the First World War left many hundreds of thousands terribly injured and they would be in their early fifties at the inception of the NHS. My grandfather was injured on the first day of the Battle of the Somme having been gassed and missing at a prior engagement and diagnosed with iron deficiency in the early stages of the conflict. In 1948 he was fifty-two years old. We would see numerous men of all ages who would be walking the streets shouting at the tops of their voices at nothing in particular and generally behaving in a desperately agitated manner. The term ‘shell shock’ was used to describe the torture those poor souls were still enduring. Many ex soldiers struggled along with crutches and invalid carriages of all shapes and sizes. The latter would be propelled by some form of hand or foot controlled pedals, some would be covered to give some protection from the elements. Along with these, there were numerous, from memory, mainly men, who had legs so bowed with the result of rickets that walking was a real difficulty.
The theatre of war was not the only source of death, injury, illness and misery. Industry was not regulated or monitored even remotely as well as it is today. Engineers and other workers with missing fingers were very common. Miners suffered injuries from falling rocks, moving machinery and perhaps most insidious, coal dust. Breathing difficulties affected a huge proportion of the population of the city of Leeds and its’ industrial Goliath of a suburb, Hunslet. Many would not survive to a reasonable old age due to the inhalation of the many chemicals floating in the atmosphere and the dust pervading the grimy streets. The collieries supplied the coal, for the furnaces that produced steel, glass and the myriad of other items of engineered products issuing from the factory doors.
I think I was in my late teens before I heard the word cancer. The father of a close friend died of the disease but whether through ignorance or simply lack of exposure, at that time there did not seem to be the dread. There were plenty of other things to die of anyway.
We would see many children with problems that we rarely see these days. Shaven heads as a lice prevention measure, leg irons to keep legs straight, often after polio attacks but mainly with vitamin deficiencies. Badly squinting eyes without the aid of correctional glasses, often, the method of correction would be to cover one eye with a sticking plaster. I do not know whether it was successful or not. A face covered with stains of Gentian Violet was a stark indicator of the presence of impetigo or even worse, ringworm!
I know we did get some fruit as part of our diet, but there would not be the quality, range or quantity that we see today. The school milk act of 1946 ensured the supply of one-third of a pint free to all school pupils under the age of 18. I remember enjoying the milk even though in warm weather the lack of refrigeration meant the milk was not as refreshing as it might have been when it left the dairy to be deposited in the school playground.
Children would often be infected with very painful boils, particularly on the nape of the neck or other areas of friction. Possible causes were the friction caused by a shirt collar and or poor hygiene.
Many children or adults rarely visited dentists until the NHS allowed for free treatment. it was almost expected that men and women would opt to have all their teeth removed while still comparatively young. My parents would have been little more than forty years old when they went through the ordeal. The reason was economics. Even subsidised dental care was expensive if you had no money and time off work was not to be taken lightly in hard times. No thanks, a full set of false teeth would last a very long time and no further dental treatment required until they wore out!
Children would be given tooth braces only to correct the very worst examples of protruding teeth. Certainly no concession to cosmetic improvement. Teeth would be removed to allow for expansion or because they were badly decaying. The anaesthetic used was gas and from memory, it was awful. The patient would be expected to be nauseous and usually sick on the bus home from the clinic.
School inspections were a regular feature when a medical team might descend en masse to investigate the eyesight , oral health or simply general health. They would also invade to administer vaccinations for the dreaded diseases of the time. I do particularly remember that polio began to feature very prominently in the news. I had a cousin and an uncle who were stricken with it. Fortunately, both escaped without the devastating consequences others suffered, although my uncle who contracted it well before the second world war was unable to join the conflict due to the effects the disease had on him. Being a deep thinker who worried within and took in everything without opening up to my parents, I believed it was only a matter of time before I would be struck down. I am sure that I was not the only one but it was a great relief when the vaccination finally became available. I also worried about the likelihood of contracting lock-jaw. Anti tetanus is now one of those immunities we take more or less for granted.
I was nine years old when my elder sister died. She contracted rheumatic fever and weakened quickly. They tried a new drug on her. This drug is still used today and rheumatic fever is rarely fatal now in the developed world. Antibiotics is generally the simple cure. She was twelve years old when she died and her death had a profound effect on me. As I have said, I kept things buried within myself and did not talk about things. I at nine years thought that my elder sister must always be my elder sister. Consequently, I could never get older than she was. For many years after her death I would not have been surprised had she come walking down the street and into the house.