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Memories of five-year-old Doreen having a neck operation in 1929

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: August 04, 2014

  • A young Doreen with her Mum and Dad, Arthur and Edith Fessey

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BUGLE reader Doreen Harris explains what it was like to have an operation as a five-year-old in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. Doreen, of Sutton Coldfield said: "What a contrast to today! You take your child into hospital, the nurse and the doctor try their best to explain what's happening and why. You can stay with them overnight. In 1929 men didn't have time off from their precious jobs, dealing with children was women's work."

I WAS a big girl! I knew this because I was five years old in 1929 and I was starting school on the following Monday.

On my 4th birthday, Mummy and Daddy had bought me a big girl's bed. Oh! It was lovely. White sheets, two white frilly pillowcases, two pink Witney blankets with pink satin hems and an art silk counterpane (bedspread) with matching eiderdown.

I had a nightdress case in a pinky red colour with shiny little embroidered roses on them. (In actual fact, I had been brainwashed out of my much loved cot so that my small sister could have it!)

I was quite a bright little girl and went to grammar school! My favourite words were, "How?" and "Why?" Not to be awkward – I wanted to know: "Why did the gas mantles pop when you lit them?" for instance.

So – with a list of instructions as long as your arm, I was off to school. Me, Mum and the girl from next door, who was responsible for depositing me in the appropriate classroom. Me – trying to remember what I had to do or not do.

Please do not ask 'How?' or 'Why?'

Please do what you are told to do.

Please remember you have a clean hanky in your pocket.

Please do not 'back answer', be polite.

Please put up your hand if you need the toilet.

I thought I had done very well on my first morning. I liked school! I was the only one who had been given a letter in a big white envelope!

Mum came to meet me at dinner time (from 12 – 2pm in those pre-war days). As soon as she saw 'the letter,' she flapped! Whatever had I done!

The letter was addressed to my parent or guardian. Mum was scared to open it. Granddad was at home, so he opened the letter and read it out loud. The gist of the matter was that the headmistress would like to see my mother after school and would mother please ask to be directed to her room.

Mum collected me and in fear and trembling, we knocked on the door. The headmistress was so kind. She sat us down and came straight to the point. "Have you noticed that Doreen holds her head down to the left side?" she asked.

Mum answered that yes, she had, and when I'd had whooping cough, aged 3, she had asked the doctor and he'd said: "Don't be a fussy mother, it's just a habit."

The headmistress said she was very sorry, but it was much more serious than that. She'd asked me to hold my head up straight and I couldn't. She then went on to say that she had a sister who was born with a condition called Torticollis.

Sufferers are unable to straighten the huge muscle that holds the head up on the shoulders, it doesn't stretch and grow as it should. Consequently, if something wasn't done now, I would grow into a deformed, misshapen, distorted cripple.

Thereupon she diverted my attention with paper and pencil and showed my mother a picture of her sister who had this problem. The poor sister's ear was pulled down on to her raised shoulder, her eye was pulled down so that she could only see the floor, she had a hump on her back and her whole body was twisted to the left and her left leg was shorter than her right. The ironic truth is, that up to three months, if recognised, the condition can be cured by massage.

The headmistress was so good. She went on to say that the family had become friends with an orthopaedic surgeon who had performed minor operations on her sister to alleviate the consequences of the deformity.

She asked if she should arrange a consultation for my parents to see what, if anything, could be done for me. We saw the surgeon. I remember him sitting me on his knee, telling me I was a bright little button and giving me a peppermint out of a tin he kept in his waistcoat pocket.

He believed that he could help me. He was prepared to perform a 'pioneering' operation on me at the Royal Hospital in Wolverhampton. He warned that I would need physiotherapy three times a week in the hospital until I was fully grown.

It had to be remembered that in those days, most people went into hospital to die. There were few medicines available. There was absolutely no visiting by children, it was thought they would be upset by seeing their parents.

How could you possibly prepare a child for an operation, or a stay in hospital? They wouldn't see their family again until they came out. In my case, it was a month.

On a bright sunny autumn day in September 1929, dressed in my second best dress (last year's Sunday best!), a matching cardigan, white ankle socks and my beloved black patent ankle strap shoes; my mother and I set out for Wolverhampton's Royal Hospital.

We arrived promptly at 9am, stepping into a cavernous echoing tiled hall space. We were met by a porter who got in touch with the children's ward. Down the stairs came a stiff, starched lady. My mother told me to go with the 'nice' nurse and she'd see me in a little while.

Up the staircase we went and into a small room, where the 'nice' nurse began to undress me. I objected violently – it was morning, not time for bed! What was she going to do with my precious shoes and pretty dress. Was she stealing them for her little girl?

Attracted by the noise, another 'nice' nurse came in to help subdue me. I howled! They threw me not too gently into a big black iron cage (cot).

I was sobbing, telling them I was a big girl, in a big girl's bed. I wanted my Mummy! I cried and carried on; I stood up and shook the bars. It did me no good, frightened and exhausted, I eventually lay down. I think I had a glass of milk and biscuits at bedtime.

Next morning the 'nice' nurse came and picked me up. Where was my breakfast? All the other children were eating theirs. I asked her where was Mummy? She said, if I was good, she would take me to see her.

We arrived at the door of the operating theatre's anteroom and went in. She sat me on a high leather couch. I couldn't see my mother – the nurse said that I would see her in a minute, she was in the next room.

Before she could say 'Jack Robinson,' I was off that couch and into the operating theatre shouting: "Mummy."

Chaos reigned! Somehow I knocked over a red oxygen cylinder, several big grown-ups tried to grab me, I tried to escape under a large metal contraption knocking over a trolley. That is all I remember!

When I woke up, the operation over, I was absolutely immobile. My hands were tied by bandages to the top of my cot cage, my feet were tied to the bottom, my head was encased in a leather head restraint and just to make sure I couldn't turn my head in this restraint, from each side hung a sandbag in blue and white ticking – like my grandma's feather bed. OK, I was subdued! I surrendered! I sobbed quietly for several days.

Then something nice happened, a lovely posh lady came to see me. She was Miss D.E. Roderick-Smith. She was a masseuse and physio, she was in charge of the hospital gymnasium.

By this time the sandbags and the head restraint were gone and I had a sort of horse collar on. She took the collar off and showed me in a hand mirror my operation cut, and where the stitches had been. She guided my fingers on to the 'good' side of my neck illustrating how the surgeon had made little cuts all down the outside of the muscle and this, combined with her exercises until I'd finished growing, would enable me to hold my head straight.

At last all my whys and wherefores had been answered. I saw her Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9am for many years.

She was a maiden lady who lived alone, she became friendly with our family and sometimes took me out at the weekend in her car. I went to hunt meetings with her. She introduced me to lunches and afternoon teas at country hotels.

It sounds cruel, but one of the exercises my father had to do morning and evening was to face me, and put a hand each side of my jawbone and lift me off the floor while we all counted up to 20. This must have been hard as I grew taller and heavier, the last few times he stood on the bottom stair and lifted me. Then I remember him saying to Mum: "I shall have to give up or I'll be the one needing physio!"

It must have been a quiet, sad, white little ghost of my former self who returned from hospital. I remember Granddad saying: "Where has my little chatterbox gone?" "She stayed in that nasty hospital Granddad," I replied.

Did you have an operation when you were young? What were your memories of going into hospital?

Email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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