The very first time that I entered a hospital was in 1945, when I was four. My mother was in a sanitorium, my father in the Navy, and I was in the care of my grandparents. Severe measles had left me with an abscessed eardrum requiring minor surgery. Not wishing to alarm me, my well-meaning uncle and grandparents told me nothing of what to expect in the hospital; they had me believe I was going on an interesting outing. I insisted on wearing my best dress – cheerfully red with sprigs of white flowers.
I was swiftly disabused. On arrival, Gran’s request to stay was refused by the receptionist who then prised my teddy from my grasp, saying I wouldn’t be needing that. An unsmiling nurse took me down in a lift – I remember the cold clashing of its doors – to a draughty corridor outside the operating theatre. She sat me down on top of a pedal-bin then left, wordlessly. I remember my fear, sitting shivering on the metal lid, wondering what lay behind the bright light in the doorway. Images of wicked witches were dispelled by worse to come: a voice summoned me from the doorway, and under the white beam I saw two tall figures in ghostly white, their mouths covered like bandits’. No one held my hand, no one spoke. One of the white persons hoisted me to the table, and in silence the chloroform mask descended to my face.
I was sick over my red dress in the taxi going home.
Months later the NHS was established. Change took time, but as younger practitioners slowly supplanted the old guard, bedside manners became increasingly humane. Today, a child’s experience of hospital could not be more different. The NHS takes pains to remind parents that children can find going to hospital a daunting experience. They caution that small patients should be told what to expect beforehand and strongly encourage parents to stay with their child for as long as possible, extra beds being available. Wards are colourfully decorated and full of toys, though children are encouraged to bring their own special cuddlies and comforters. Their needs are prioritized; they are encouraged to play in the ward – no more sitting tucked up rigidly in beds with ‘hospital corners’. Nurses sing to them and consultants play the clown, happily losing their dignity if it raises a smile. Until Covid 19, hugs were always on tap; I hope they will not be banished for much longer.
For loving every child and enhancing the lives of millions, I say, thank you, NHS; may you outlive us all.
Submitted by Patricia Sutherland, 79, Glasgow