Life on the wards

Patients' memories of their time at Stoke Mandeville

Diana

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Life on the wards' page

photo NSIC

"When I came to Stoke Mandeville in 1954 I remember it as a lot of old Nissan huts, not dissimilar in fact to the pony club camp where I had contracted Polio the previous year! In each ward hut there were 14 beds lined up on the left and right; great big metal beds each with a ‘monkey pole’ for hoisting yourself up on (they don’t use them now, they wrench your shoulders out of balance). I remember being woken up every four hours by a nurse to be turned.  A ward trolley stood in the middle of the room from which they dished out the meals. At the end of the ward was the day room from which you had access out onto the grass. The bathroom and toilets were primitive and not very clean; and the roof leaked. Diana, patient

Photo:Head Porter, Tommy Ounsworth and unidentified nurse at the hospital reception, ca 1960

Head Porter, Tommy Ounsworth and unidentified nurse at the hospital reception, ca 1960

Photo, Caroline Kennedy

 John
Photo:Nurse turning a patient.

Nurse turning a patient.

photo NSIC

"I was just a scared kid, eighteen years old, and in such pain and she just wanted to reassure me and comfort me."

"I had my accident in 1964. I fell off the Big Wheel at Butlins; it was a 40 foot fall and I landed on my back across a brick wall. It broke my fall and saved my life - but it also broke my spine. They flew me direct to Stoke Mandeville.  When you came onto the ward as a new patient they put you by the sister’s office and as you gradually improved they moved your bed further down the ward. I remember my first night there outside the sister’s office and that sister (and I cannot remember her name) sat with me all night to comfort me. I was just a scared kid, eighteen years old, and in such pain and she just wanted to reassure me and comfort me. Every couple of minutes she would adjust the two sandbags that were holding my spine in place against the bed; or she would move me or wipe my brow. I can still remember every moment of that night. And I think that you would just not get care like that now." John, patient

 George
Photo:Postcard on sale in the hospital shop

Postcard on sale in the hospital shop

photo Dr. J Silver

"My then-girlfriend bought me a post card from the shop in the hospital; It was an aerial view of the hospital taken from an aeroplane. She asked me where on it I thought the hospital was. I was amazed when she told me the whole lot was the hospital; it looked huge.  Later on when I was in the wheel chair, a friend from hospital and I went and had a look around we must have pushed ourselves for miles around the corridors!" George, patient

 Chris

"I had a degenerative disease;  I was an 11 year old on a geriatric ward before I came to Stoke.  I had spent 2 years in a general hospital, but never got pressure sores – they took really good care there – I was turned and monitored frequently and bathed twice a day. Then I got moved to Stoke.  I was there for about 9 months at the age of 16.

Guttmann he used to say ‘If you don’t do it, you’re out.  That bed can be use for someone who WILL work’.

I used to fight with Guttmann all the time, he was always full of self-importance.  He used to come round the ward with lots of people around him – we used to call it the circus.   You had to make a list of what you’d done; there was a very strict regime and if you didn’t follow it you were out. Poppa expected everyone to do as he said and if you didn’t follow the regime he said there were other people that would use the beds. You didn’t always want to follow it, but he used to say ‘If you don’t do it, you’re out.  That bed can be use for someone who WILL work’. But other people loved the man. My future husband was also treated by Guttmann and he was devoted to him." Chris, patient 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Life on the wards' page

photo Chris Checkley

"The Hoover company adopted the ward and they donated this wheelchair chair - which was very modern then.  They came in weekly and brought gifts. There is Poppa at the edge (it was very unusual for him to be smiling). That's me aged 16 in the bed, the ward sister - Sister Elizabeth Cherry."

Sally

"The orderly said 'Oh, what lovely legs you’ve got – but they won’t stay like that for long.' I think it was the casual brutality of her bedside manner that shocked me."

“I remember I had this feeling of huge relief as I came up in the ambulance because I was going home to Stoke Mandeville and because I knew of Guttmann and his reputation and what he could do for me. I had been lying in a plaster cast for two and a half months in Northampton without being turned; miraculously I didn’t have any bed sores. But then coming onto the ward was a real shock. I remember lying on the bed while an orderly called Mary took my clothes off. As she did this my leg spasmed and she said “Oh, you’re spastic then”. It was the first time that I realised that these movements were involuntary and a part of paraplegia. When I was undressed Mary went on, “Oh, what lovely legs you’ve got – but they won’t stay like that for long.” I think it was the casual brutality of her bedside manner that shocked me." Sally, patient

Brom

Photo:Meal time on the ward

Meal time on the ward

photo Wheelpower

"The old wards were larger and contained a whole range of patients; the better were at one end and the newly-injured were at the other. The better patients would go to the shops for the bed-bound patients. Those patients that were up in wheelchairs would all have lunch together at tables on the ward and the new patients would learn from the older ones. They could also see straight away, just by looking across the room,  that they were going to get better. They were there for a long time on the same ward and there was a real sense of community. Today by contrast the facilities are so much better, but patients at the same stage are grouped together in smaller wards, split between different consultants and with no sense of how they might progress." Brom, physio

Margaret

"He would go to each bed on the ward and hold forth in a loud voice about each patient’s condition; so we all ended up knowing about each other."

"One day Dr Guttmann just appeared at my bedside; he had been away somewhere for a few days.  I came to know him very well and discovered he was the boss. From then on every week his ward round was quite an experience. There would be about 20 people with him – nurses, physios, junior doctors, visitors – all come to see what his treatment was like. He would go to each bed on the ward and hold forth in a loud voice about each patient’s condition; so we all ended up knowing about each other. He could be very curt. You didn’t dare say anything back to him. I remember once I told him I was bored and I got this long lecture about how I shouldn’t be bored because there was always something to do or be thinking about." Margaret, patient

Photo:Margaret in bed, 1959

Margaret in bed, 1959

photo Margaret Maughan

   Rainer

"It was the very first time I had seen people in wheelchairs; and there were so many of them and they seemed happy. I remember thinking, what is this wheel chair city I have come to?"

"When I was sixteen years old I broke my neck in a diving accident in a swimming pool; this was in July 1963. In those days in Switzerland nobody knew anything about spinal cord injuries. I was simply sent to the big area hospital where my family lived and put on my back; I lay there for six months. My injury meant that I was a quadriplegic with seeming no movement in either my arms or legs. I was told - and I believed - that it was just a matter of time before I would die. They even sent in the priest to convert me to Catholicism so that my soul would go to heaven.  Eventually we found out about Stoke Mandeville Hospital and the treatment there. Then my step parents got all the people in my village together and raised money for me and finally, 18 months after my accident, in December 1964, I was flown to England.

I remember that journey so well because it was quite strange. I was carried onto an ordinary passenger plane from which they had removed several rows of seats so that I could be laid on the floor on a very thin mattress. I was lying there totally naked just covered with a thin towel – and this was mid-winter – and all around me there were normal passengers in their seats looking at me; I remember finding it very embarrassing. But then when we landed at London I remember being left on the plane while all the other passengers disembarked and looking out of the window. And it was so strange, because right opposite there was another plane loading up; and all around it were people in wheelchairs; and they were laughing and smiling in the snow. It was the very first time I had seen people in wheelchairs; and there were so many of them and they seemed happy. I remember thinking, what is this wheel chair city I have come to? I discovered afterwards that it was the British team going off to one of the winter wheelchair games. But it was such a peculiar coincidence for me to see them and it felt like a good omen.

So then I went to Stoke Mandeville for three months; that was all the money that had been raised would allow for. The first big shock was being turned on my bed every three hours. For the last eighteen months I had simply been immobile on my back and I was stiff like a wooden blade. No one had done this in Switzerland and of course it hurt incredibly! So much so that I fainted and collapsed from the pain. I had my first meeting with Guttmann a few days later. I remember he was really interested in me and in taking care of me; he reflected a kind of fatherly emotional situation. Then after his examination I was sent to a physiotherapist. A few weeks later he came back to me and said. ‘Rainer, I am not going to try and kid you about any miracle cures. The only thing I will be able to do for you is to get you so that instead of lying on your back you can sit in a wheel chair.’ " Rainer, patient 

Summer days

"Men in their beds outside: this was common in the 1950s and popular in the summer. We always pulled the beds outside into the sunshine. It gave the men something to look at other than the four walls; they would watch the cars and the ambulances going up the drive and the off-duty porters and orderlies would come over and have a chat." Joan, nurse

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Life on the wards' page

photo Joan Newton

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Life on the wards' page

photo, Joan Newton

This page was added on 18/03/2011.
Comments about this page

I was in Ward 2x from August to December 1964; the sister on days was Sister Mears, she died last year; she was and old-school Nurse, good at her job. I was 19 broke my back in two places in a mining accident, T11 T12, went home from ward 2.5 days before Xmas. I remember the 'circus': you had a week to learn a new skill, then move on to the next one, then when you learned them all you could come home. George

By G Brogan
On 22/09/2011

My late Dad, Dave Losban, a war disabled ex-Royal Marine, was a regular patient at Stoke; does anyone remember him?

By Mike Losban
On 12/04/2012

I was a patient at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the autumn of 1955. I had polio. I was in an isolation ward with other children and a couple of young nurses. All of us had polio. Several kids were in iron lungs. Some were in beds which rocked, up and down not side to side. The theory being that air was pushed into the lungs as the bed rocked up. I remember having therapy in a swimming pool. I remember the big old iron beds, bedpans, nurses coming towards me carrying ominous looking covered metal trays. I was lucky in that my leg paralysis abated and with the exception of a limp caused by contracted calf muscles I have led a healthy adult life. Unfortunately I now have what I believe to be post polio syndrome.

By Susan
On 29/08/2012

my neck was broken (C3/C4) in an RTA in spain. I was, however, an incomplete. That meant that one did not conform to the standard trauma effects that Stoke M was based upon. I had some movement in my legs and had some feeling which produced hypersensitivity and spasticity. Thus I was regarded as "lucky". I'm sorry to say my experience was far from positive. The discipline stemming from Ludvig Guttman's approach seemed to have morphed into a regime that applied rules which took no note of incomplete's difficult situation. And, of course, one understandably couldn't expect much support from those less fortunate patients. Pehaps that's what they wanted but it all made me determined to get out and, after many months of misery, I did.

By laurie packer
On 29/08/2012

does anyone remember terry winters?

By karen hunter
On 29/08/2012

I came to Stoke Mandeville during the summer of 1956. I had spent two months at the Churchill at Oxford - during the end of which I was told that my chances of walking again were almost nil. I had been injured at the bottom of the spine by a blow from a broom handle - in a school fight; I was sixteen - and at grammar school preparing for O level exams. Two weeks after the blow, Sunday 3rd April 1955 I suddenly struck down by a pulmonary embolism which left me paralysed up to the neck. I was rushed off to Northampton General to spend two days in an empty ward until they found out it wasn't polio. Next to the Churchill - where the young nurses made life seem almost bareable. I was put in the general hospital at Stoke Ward 10) - and eventually transfered to the Spinal Unit after the Games. I was in Ward 2 and by that time able to get around the hospital quite well - although the main corridor (going up) from the canteen was hell! Still, being able to get out into the sunshine under the trees either side of the main drive was great. I loved to watch the archery on the grass between the drive and the wards; it fascinated me. My physio was Sheila Robertson, a Scot - tall, and well able to handle a 6ft tall young man. I adored Sheila - she was a real "brick" and I have her to thank for making such a rapid recovery and eventual independence. How I wish I knew what happened to her. I had also started archery (in Ward 3) under "Q" Hill. I simply loved it - and quickly became quite proficient - although no where near as good as Harry Hill and Bert Aldwinckle; they were superb archers, and shot in the Games. However, I was good enough to be picked to shoot at Rolls Razors, Cricklewood, only a week before being discharged. I went home (altho' Stoke had become my second home) a few weeks before Christmas. to be honest - life back in the "real world" would never be the same. Little did I know, that within six months I would be back in Ward 3X with a broken arm. That's all for now - will tell more later; particularly my view of Dr. Guttmann, Dr. Melzak, Dr. Fagoni - and dear Dr. Michaelis.

By ALAN CLARK
On 03/10/2012

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