I was reading a book today and the author referred to a time she had spent in hospital as a child and this started me thinking about my own childhood experiences of hospital in 1960.
I was nine years old and it was a Monday morning when I was taken by ambulance from my home to a hospital. I remember the doctor was very cross with my mother. I knew I was ill; I couldn’t walk. I knew my father had not taken me seriously, had not listened to me when I said walking was difficult. It was at the end of half term and I had spent a lot of time that week reading in bed. This had been interpreted as laziness and on Saturday my father had made me walk the three miles to the library. I remember crying and on the way back my legs wouldn’t work properly and I had to crawl. My father thought I was making it up and kept telling me to stop being silly. That evening after tea I was expected to clear the table. I had to do it on my hands and knees – still they didn’t believe me.
It was on Monday morning when I couldn’t get out of bed for school that my mother called the doctor. When I got to the cottage hospital I was alone; my mother had not come in the ambulance with me and I was put me in a ward with mainly elderly women. There was no separate children’s ward. My clothes were taken away and I was put in a hospital gown. Without a word of explanation I was put in a bed and denied a pillow. I was to lie flat. I was not allowed to get out of bed or even sit up for the next two months. No-one ever explained why I was there or why I had to lie flat. My brother was not allowed to visit me. My parents were allowed to come at visiting hours only which was 5.00 – 6.00pm. My father could not get away from work and my mother would need a sitter for my brother, nevertheless she did come most days and my father came at weekends.
Apart from my family, I was deprived of the company of other children except for a short time when another child was in the bed next to mine but she was very ill and didn’t communicate very much, but I still have a vivid picture of her in my mind. I have no idea what happened to her. Each day was the same hospital routine. I had nothing to do. There was no hospital school, no work was sent from my school. I loved books but found it very hard to read flat on my back and they wouldn’t let me turn on my side.
Over the next two months I never had a bath, only a bed bath once a week. They couldn’t wash my hair so they cut it very short and I had dry shampoos. I still remember the itchiness. I tried to amuse myself by day dreaming. The highlight of my stay was when I received letters from every child in my class, they were almost identical – it must have been a writing exercise on the board. I remember longing to be back at school and so grateful they hadn’t forgotten me.
Each day I was made to eat the hospital food, which was awful, but the worst was every Friday when Coley fish was served with lumpy mashed potatoes and parsley sauce. The smell was awful – my mother always cooked Coley fish for our cat and I was convinced they were making me eat cat food. Most evening and at weekends my mother brought me food – I wasn’t hungry but she made me eat it. She didn’t trust hospital food because it didn’t have any goodness.
In fact the ward I was on was a geriatric ward and unsurprisingly people died. They never told me they had died even though, awake and scared in the night, I saw them taking the body of an elderly lady away on more than one occasion. Once I asked after her and they said she had gone home. I knew they were lying.
There were rituals in the hospital and some I never got to the bottom of. Every evening the nurse would fill in my chart and ask: “Yes or No?” I didn’t know what she was asking and never knew what to reply. It didn’t seem to matter what I said as I don’t remember any consequences. It was only later I found out that the question related to the opening – or not – of my bowels.
After two months I was allowed to sit up and for the next month I gradually learnt to walk again and was able to visit some of the other wards. I remember a strange mixture of women and men with what I now realise were mental illnesses and I was scared, but knew it would be wrong to show I found them repellant. I steeled myself to visit them and be polite but, following one horrible incident where an elderly, toothless woman grabbed me and pulled me close, made sure I stayed out of their reach.
Even when I eventually left hospital, I was not allowed to return to school for several months while I convalesced and regained my muscle power. It was then I found out I had had rheumatic fever. Later I was surprised when on returning to church I heard them say prayers for a child who had nearly died and been brought back to them. Who was it I asked, only to be told it was me they were talking about. I had nearly died – surely not, I hadn’t been that ill! I always believed they were exaggerating.
I had put on a lot of weight in hospital and my hair had been kept cropped. There were no mirrors and I remember seeing myself for the first time when trying on the new clothes my mother had bought for me. I remember staring at a chubby girl with cropped hair and looking over my shoulder for my former athletic self with a bob haircut and ribbons. It was a shock. I didn’t recognise myself.
When I returned to school no one recognized me either, but they soon found a name for me – ‘fatty’. My former friends had found new friends in my absence, I couldn’t blame them – they probably hadn’t been told I would eventually come back. My mother always insisted I went home for dinner (she didn’t trust school dinners either) so there was no opportunity to make friends during lunchtime. My final year in primary school was miserable and made worse when I discovered I had failed the 11+ and would not be going to grammar school. I had been away from school for months but no one had thought to make sure I kept up with the preparation for the tests and not surprisingly I failed. However, I was apparently a borderline fail, and my family were brought into school for an interview. My father told me afterwards they had decided I wouldn’t get a place in the Grammar school because another girl, Jennifer, whose father was a policeman had been given the place. Apparently they thought she, rather than me, daughter of a factory worker, albeit a skilled toolmaker, would have more support from her family and so I went off to one of the very first comprehensive schools in the UK. My school report said, “If Marilyn did less daydreaming and concentrated more she would do much better.” Daydreaming had got me through the day in hospital – I had become very good at it.
I spend a lot of my life now thinking about children’s rights and what needs to be done to persuade adults that children’s voices should be listened to and then acted upon. I have no doubt that my hospital experience was pivotal in my life; it was a benchmark, I saw my childhood in two halves, before and after I was in hospital. Some things I learned in hospital I am grateful for – I learned how to make a bed with properly mitered corners that before the widespread use of fitted sheets stood me in good stead and still comes in handy occasionally. I also learned that I was resilient, I didn’t complain, I made the best of things and realised I could cope without my family and maybe it did equip me to cope with problems in my life, I’ll never know, but learning how to daydream probably prepared me to be a reflective person. Things I am not grateful for are what I now see as my invisibility. No one saw me, I felt powerless and lonely, no one was interested in what I thought; no one considered that I should be told anything – I was only a child. To be a child in 1960 in England was to be a non-person. I had no rights. I had no power. I had no voice. I had no chance to ask questions about the things that were happening to me. I don’t remember nurses being kind to me, I do remember being made to eat my Coley fish even though I was crying; I do remember the pain of having blood taken every week and dreading the moment when the needle would be stuck in my arm and hoping the nurse would find a vein and only have to do it once. I remember being told not to be silly when I showed fear, to be a brave girl ‘for Mummy’. I remember not being treated as a person because I was a non-person – a child.
As I recall these memories I wonder what would have been different if the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child had been passed at that time. I think first of all my parents would have had open access to visiting and may even have been allowed to stay with me over night if I was really scared. I think my brother would have been allowed to visit me. Surely I would have been in a children’s ward with staff trained to work with children and they would have been sympathetic and explained what question ‘Yes or No’ was the answer to, as they filled in their charts and they wouldn’t have made me eat that Coley fish! I think they might have found a way to set up a prop for a book so I could read. I would probably have had a tutor and the school would have set work and I would have passed my 11+. Most of all someone would have explained what was wrong with me and why they had to make me lie flat, and why they had to take blood and why they were so interested in the workings of my bowels. They wouldn’t have cut my hair off and they would have found a way to wash it. I like to think I would have been given some choices and a chance to discuss the rules of the hospital rather than just be made to obey them. I would have been allowed to have my own pyjamas and not the silly hospital gown that was too big and constantly rucked up under me (I still can’t bare to wear a nightie in bed). My mother would have told the hospital not to feed me as she was bringing food and I wouldn’t have got fat. Maybe they would have found a way to push my bed outside so I could see the sunshine and feel the wind. I wouldn’t have been excluded from any sense of control over my life; I would have had some personal autonomy. They would have explained what death was and helped me understand what was wrong with the other patients. On returning home my mother would have let me choose my new clothes and let me grow my hair.
I see now that to be ignored as I was is the ultimate in powerlessness. I felt as if I didn’t count, worse I believed I was a nuisance because the nurses told me I was. I felt guilt for all the trouble I caused my parents in coming to see me. My mother had to catch two buses each way.
These memories were stirred as I read another account of a child’s experience in hospital and for the first time I realised that my experience was not just my experience; that other children had been treated in similar ways, that others had felt the same as I had, I felt a sense of solidarity. My generation of children were frequently treated as non-persons, were frequently ignored, were seen as not competent enough to be able to process our experiences, let alone be involved in decisions about our lives. Our voices were silenced.
A lot has changed, but not enough. The rights of the child have been recognized officially, but few adults recognize all the issues that need to be addressed to properly enact those rights. Most important of all is children’s voice. We must value children’s experiences, listen to what they have to tell us and act upon it. This means the relationships between children and adults have to continue to change; we need to pay attention to how children are treated and how they feel. We have to think about how much power children actually have in their daily lives and campaign for the social changes which will have to take place if the position of children is to get better. Changes in the ways children are treated in hospital today compared to my own childhood shows change is possible. I hope that my grandchildren will look back at their lives and wonder at how little power they had compared to their own children – that would be progress.