As a parish priest for 47 years, I’ve done my share of hospital visiting. But my liveliest memories of life on the wards are from weeks at St James’s Hospital, Leeds, in the late 1940s, when I was eight.
When I was one, I fell out of my high chair on to an open fire. I had numerous skin grafts to my face, performed by brilliant young surgeons trained by the legendary
Archie Mcindoe, who treated burned wartime pilots at East Grinstead – a group known as the Guinea Pig Club.
Every day in hospital began at 5.30. Once, an old man died in the early hours and I was woken by the kerfuffle of extra staff with torches, called in to help. I saw only one more death – a lad about my age. He was forever out of the covers, jumping up and down on his bed and singing ‘Oh my darling, Clementine!’ One night, there were torches again and, next morning, a screen around his bed.
After breakfast, I would go to the day room and have a game of chess. Then it was everyone back in bed for ‘rounds’. Around 10.30, sister, leading the consultants, made their rounds.
The afternoons were for napping and copious snoring. I was allowed out. At 3.30pm, by the porter’s lodge, the bookie’s runner would present himself and I handed him the betting slips of my fellow patients. It was all exquisitely cloak and dagger.
Over my time, treatment – especially anaesthetics – improved wonderfully. When I first went for surgery, the terrifying chloroform pad was held over my nose and mouth. You went dizzy, your head span and when you woke up you were sick. Then they changed to sodium pentothal to put you under: an injection into a vein in your arm.
St James’s was renowned as the largest teaching hospital in Europe. There were flower gardens and vegetable plots, even a church called the hospital chapel – lovely Victorian Gothic. I remember one spring afternoon, when I was well enough to go outside, Staff Nurse Parker, in her elaborate headdress, took me for a stroll among the blossom. She held my hand.
By the Rev Dr Peter Mullen, who receives £50. Readers are invited to send in their own 400-word submissions about the past. For more Memory Lanes, please download the new Oldie app, available now for just £2.99 an issue