The new NHS

I didn’t see much of the winter games at school when I was five. In January I was rushed into hospital in the middle of the night to have my burst appendix removed. My father carried me down the stairs from our flat to the waiting ambulance. I can recall the nausea and discomfort I felt, not wanting to untuck my legs from under me. The ambulance bell was ringing and my father told me about the special dark windows which meant that we could see out but that nobody could see us inside. I was taken to Stepping Hill Hospital, but I don't remember anything about my arrival or about the surgery.

The only memorably disagreeable part was being told to walk soon after the operation. I was scolded for protesting ‘ There are lots of other boys and girls much worse off than you’ said the nurse briskly. I complied and then climbed gingerly back into bed. I was wheeled into a big room with lots of other children in beds. There was a television in the ward which I couldn't really see but I didn't care. The bed just seemed very narrow and a long way off the ground. The only other memory of my medical treatment was of being given a large spoon of malt extract at night before the lights were turned down. This had a small yellow tablet inside which I quietly spat out. I have no idea of its purpose, but I didn't seem to come to any harm by removing it.

There was no suggestion that as a five-year-old child I needed anything more than medical care or that being in hospital might be a frightening experience. I saw my parents at visiting time, the same time that adult patients received visitors but not otherwise. It was a different age when nurses wore blue dresses, white pinafores and a stiff white hat, matron was god and children who were continually distressed were unreasonable. My parents came to see me every day and their journey to visit me was awful. It was the middle of winter and they had to catch two buses.

They tried their best to cheer me up by bringing me a Sweep glove puppet complete with a squeak. (Sweep the spaniel puppy was Sooty the bear’s best friend and the two of them worked with magician Harry Corbett on his TV show, usually destroying his magic tricks and soaking him in the process.) I didn’t like being in the hospital and it seemed a long time until I was allowed to go home.

My mother came to collect me from Stepping Hill, but the buses were crowded on our journey back home. An irate older lady took my mother to task for letting me put my head in my mother’s lap. She was angry because I was taking up too much room on the long seat. My mother tried to explain that I had just come out of hospital after an operation but that didn’t seem to convince the lady. I moved up and travelled the rest of the way home under a frosty cloud.

Children did lose time from my class with a variety of complaints. One of the little girls called Lynn spent weeks recovering from rheumatic fever. Other children broke arms and legs climbing trees or being in places they weren't supposed to be and were rewarded with impressive plaster casts which were liberally autographed. I can't remember anybody having allergies of any kind, though. Everybody caught colds in the winter which was miserable as there was no central heating to keep our homes really warm, no gentle tissues to wipe sore noses and no lip balm to soothe cracked lips. We all consumed large amounts of aspirin, unaware that this might not be a good idea.

One weekday morning my mum stayed in bed. She was ill. Everything in the morning felt wrong when my mum was ill. My Dad became harassed, trying to look after her and help me and see to the dog at the same time; the kitchen was icy, the porridge had lumps and getting ready took so long that we were both late. My mother was suffering from a particularly bad bout of tonsillitis, so bad that my Dad had to ask our doctor to call.

Dr O’Brien made house visits, held surgeries and answered emergency calls during the night. He worked alone, not as part of a team which could share the burden of caring for a large practice. It must have been a punishing lifestyle, yet Dr O’Brien never looked dishevelled or unkempt. He wore a neat navy pin-striped suit, a dark homburg hat and his shoes were always shiny. In one pocket of his waistcoat, he kept a beautiful gold fob watch. When my parents took me to see him he would hold up the watch and ask me to blow on it; When I did, the cover would ‘magically’ pop open. I liked him because, even though he wasn’t very tall he always bent down to talk to me. His voice was soft and his Irish accent easy to listen to. Our doctor knew all his patients by name and would greet them if he saw them in the street, politely raising his hat.

Dr O'Brien and his family lived in a large house which was where he held his morning and early evening surgeries. He had no receptionist and there was no question of booking an appointment. Anyone who wanted to see him had to wait outside his house before surgery time until his wife opened the front door. If it rained we all got wet and if it was cold we got even colder whilst we stood around. The waiting room had metal-framed chairs with canvas seats and backs which were arranged in rows. The first person in the queue sat at the front left-hand side and the rest of us filled up the seats in order. As people were summoned by his bell, they went through to see the doctor and we all shuffled around until it was finally our turn. The surgery lasted for as long as it took the doctor to see everyone and latecomers were free to join the end of the queue. The doctor’s house was spotlessly clean, with beautiful shiny wooden floors and doors but, like most homes, it wasn’t centrally heated. There was one small electric fire to warm the whole waiting room. It was a good idea to wrap up and to bring some reading matter to pass the time because there was nothing else on offer.

Dr O'Brien's consulting room was not the most spacious and every possible inch of it seemed to be occupied. His patients sat on wooden chairs with shiny leather seats which made squeaking noises when we moved. The walls were covered with bookshelves, books, memorabilia of different kinds and certificates. Any instruments which might be needed for examination sat in a disinfectant bath on his desk which meant that a faint antiseptic waft greeted patients as they opened his door. A request to lie on the examination couch meant a tricky manoeuvre between the doctor’s large wooden desk, the couch and the patient chairs. The couch posed its own problems. Mrs O’Brien must have had a great affinity for any item of furniture which could be buffed to a high gloss. The old couch was covered in extremely well-polished leather and I lay very still to avoid slithering to the floor.

If a patient came to the evening surgery and left after shop closing time (5pm), their prescription had to wait until the local chemists opened the following day – after 9.00 am. There was no emergency pharmacy available locally. Nobody complained, nobody considered themselves inconvenienced. My parents were simply glad to be able to see a doctor and be offered treatment whenever the need arose. They had both told me what life was like when they were little when someone was ill and there was no money to pay for a visit to the doctors.

1958 was not a good year for our health. It was still winter when I caught measles. I can remember feeling extremely ill and lying in a darkened room, hating the drops my parents had to put in my ears and my eyes at regular intervals. I couldn’t concentrate to read, I couldn't have visitors and it seemed a long time before I was allowed back to school. In the meanwhile, I did get letters and cards from my family, and some very special parcels from my cousin Kate.

If she had been born to wealthier parents in earlier times, my cousin Kate would have been described as an invalid; she suffered from asthma. The attacks were often severe and she spent a lot of time away from school. A local family who knew about her health problems would save their children's comics for her and every now and then deliver a bundle of them to her house. Kate cheered up my miserable measles time by rewrapping them and sending them to me. My days were brightened by Dennis the Menace and his dog Gnasher, Minnie the Minx, and Pansy Potter (the strong man’s daughter). Particular favourites of mine were the silent Wilfrid from the Bash Street Kids whose mouth never appeared above the top of his sweater and Desperate Dan, the strongest man in the world. Dan lived with his aunt Aggie who fed him cow pies in enormous dishes with the cow’s horns sticking out. Sometimes there was an Eagle comic too. I liked Dan Dare, the intrepid spaceman who travelled the universe with his incompetent sidekick called Digby whilst they battled the evil plans of the green-faced Mekon.

The days were shortening and boys had started to check our gardens for conkers when, quite suddenly, life took one of its stomach lurchingly unexpected turns. At different points in my writing, I refer to my three cousins, Margaret, Judith and Kate. But there was another cousin who was four years younger than me. Her name was Catherine.

She was a quiet, shy girl with dark hair like her mother, my mother’s sister, Fran. We didn’t see each other often. Her parents ran a pharmacy in Widnes so weekends were working times for them. I don't even know the name of the illness that killed her, but it must have worked very quickly because there seemed to have been no warning. My only understanding of the shocking event was provided by two overheard conversations. In the first Gran was crying and telling my mother that the last thing Catherine said to her was ‘Read me a story, Gran’ Then my mother began to cry too and I began to feel very shaky but I had no idea what I was supposed to do. In a second much later conversation Gran described the children from Catherine’s nursery lining the street to the church, each carrying a single flower. The listeners fell silent. At some point I was told briefly that Catherine had died. I had questions, but eavesdropping had suggested that I would do well to leave the matter alone.

I know now that this must have been an appalling time for Catherine’s mother, my aunt Fran because Fran’s husband had only recently left them to live with another woman. This had been preceded by sudden visits, hushed phone calls and intense discussions between adults from which I was excluded. But all of this happened in the days when people closed the door on their grief and suffering and thought that privacy was some kind of remedy for loss. Children were excluded from tragic events. We were deemed too young to understand and in need of protection. So that is as much as I know about an era when a family member’s entire life imploded and was never spoken of again.

Not long after I recovered from measles my mother’s niggling toothache became unbearable and she had to book an appointment with the dentist. The free dental treatments provided by the new national health service were the first that most people of my parent's generation had ever experienced.

Going to the dentist in the 1950s could be an absolutely horrendous experience. My mother hated dental treatment and was worried that she would probably need a filling. Drilling took a long time because dental drills were very slow. Having a filling could be a very painful process if the drill overheated so to avoid discomfort, patients were injected with large amounts of anaesthetic which took a long time to wear off. This often meant that only a meal like soup was possible even hours after treatment. Silver coloured amalgam was the only filling material available. It was serviceable but left large unattractive dark patches on treated teeth.

I am the first to admit that I did not take good care of my teeth when I was a child. I ate too much sugar and was careless about brushing. But I did go to the dentist and not just when I needed treatment, but it was a hateful process. My dentist had absolutely no sympathy or understanding of how frightening the whole business could be for a child. Because my parents were often at work I sometimes went to appointments on my own. I can recall one occasion when the dentist had caught my lip over my lower teeth. He was pressing down and I could feel my lip cutting. I made a noise and moved to show what he was doing. He slapped me and shouted at me, telling me that I could have had a terrible accident. I've no doubt that he was right, but it left me with a lasting fear of dental treatment.