Monday, 12 March 2012

Signs of improvement

Volume 2 – chapter 1 – part 2

My treatment proved a complete success and the sputum tests I had some weeks after it began were negative, even after the incubation period. With the right sort of care and complete rest the cavity in my lung should heal a process that would take about three years; maybe then I could resume a normal life; which was the prognosis at the time. This did not mean I was free to go home, it had taken about three months to stop the disease in its tracks, but it was going to take at least as long as that to confirm it would not return. This was a deadly infection that took no prisoners, those that were in the fight against it had learned to take no chances. It appeared that the worst was over although I would remain incarcerated for another three months, which would give me time to get used to the regular air injections. Hopefully the drama was all over, like the day I went for one of my first air fills at the operation theatre, where I had to sit upright while it was done. Don’t ask me why, but on this occasion I blacked out, and the next thing I knew was that the staff were holding me up and trying to get me to drink a stimulant. When I was able I drank the liquid which burned down into my stomach and gave me a lovely glow: “You can give me more of that.” I said, and the doctor smiled saying: “That is all we can afford to give you, it is the finest cognac, and very expensive.” He was right; I have never been able to afford it since that time.

I began to learn more about this disease and the fact that there was now some treatment for it though it proved to be an unpleasant experience. The treatment was surgical but we heard that drug treatment was being developed and tested which was said to be a painless and guaranteed cure. When I heard this news my heart lifted and I began to realise that maybe my life was not about to end after all. Of course we the victims of this killer disease wanted to believe that an effective cure was just around the corner but it was not here yet and in the meantime we had to survive. When it did arrive it was a gradual process that gradually reduced the scourge of tuberculosis. Today the latest drugs eliminate the various strains of tubercular bacilli which vary, running into hundreds, but at the time of my treatment it was in its infancy. I can remember being given injections of a drug called streptomycin which would kill the bacillus but had difficulty doing so. Apparently it had a waxy coating that protected it so the patient had to ingest an acid to strip away the coating so that the drug could do its work. The acid was called paraaminosalacyic acid or PAS for short and it was the vilest thing to swallow. We had the choice of taking a large cachet of crystals or a dose of liquid which had to be helped down with a number of the sweetest confectionery one could find.

With time passing so slowly the biggest problem we had was boredom, in a way it was like being a soldier in wartime, with long periods of waiting with nothing to do interspersed with moments of terror and suffering. There were the occasional visitors but even they did little to help alleviate the boredom, though I did have a couple of visitors who gave me something to think about. The first was a tall important looking man of middle age who came to interview me from the RAMC. (Royal Army Medical Corps) Little did I realise at the time how very important this visit was, it was only in later years that I recognised what lay behind this interview and the significance of the questions he asked me. My visitor was well dressed in civilian clothes, with a friendly demeanour which disarmed me completely. He did not identify himself in detail but must have been a senior doctor with quite a high rank, maybe a lieutenant colonel or something of that nature. Under more normal circumstances I would have been alert to the situation and how the outcome would affect me, but with my world shattered and in a state of shock I had little interest in what he might do or say.


With my treatment under way I was not allowed out of bed and I was not happy about it as can be seen here. I am in my bed by the window, where I was interviewed by visitors from the Army and from the Red Cross. This was also the place where I was caught playing cards for money.

My visitor was relaxed and informal which made me respond accordingly, sitting by my bed he chatted about my situation and conjectured on how it had come about. He asked me to confirm certain details which he already knew, and he included in his questions an enquiry regarding any possible associations I might have had with females while stationed in Trieste. I answered his questions with total honesty which is why I was able to confirm that I had not consorted with women while in Trieste, to which he replied that he found it hard to believe that a young man such as me had felt no desire for the company of the opposite sex. I assured him that this was the case and I am sure he believed me; it must have been very apparent to him that he was dealing with a naive and unsophisticated young man who was completely transparent. I gave no thought to the future at the time, but the outcome of this visit was that a short time afterwards I was medically discharged as unfit for further service, and advised that I would be granted a disability pension at the full rate of 100% which even in its entirety was only a pittance of just a few pounds a week. This outcome seemed of little importance to me at the time, but today I can see what an important decision it was. This pension was only a small amount of money but even that was reduced as my health improved; over the next few years it dropped gradually to 20% and though I had little chance of obtaining worthwhile employment, nothing I did would move those who decided these things to help me further.

When disaster strikes one can only see the ruins that are left, it is not usual to spare time to consider the wider implications, I know I didn’t, the destruction of my life and the plans I had formulated were the only thoughts I had room for in my head at the time. Could anything worse have happened to me? In retrospect I realise now that the answer might well have been in the affirmative. Eventually I heard via the grapevine that being a regular soldier I had been chosen for promotion to full corporal, with the intention of putting me in charge of the draft to be sent to Egypt. When I failed to return from leave I believe that another regular took my place, (possibly the guardsman I had been friendly with,) which meant that my loss had been someone else’s gain. However, if rumour is correct, it was a less fortunate outcome for him when he had been shot to death on a road block on the outskirts of Cairo. It was said that he was examining the boot of a car when terrorists in a car further back in the queue of waiting vehicles saw their chance to ambush the unsuspecting policeman. He never stood a chance being shot in the back; if fate had not intervened his death would probably have been mine.

Over the years I developed some bitterness over what I conceived to be a lack of sympathy and understanding from the authorities in response to my plight. After all I had lost everything in the service of my country, I had been willing to risk everything and I deserved better, or so I reasoned at the time. I was aware of the impracticality of expecting more, but I was not willing to recognise the arguments put forward. It was all very well to say that the country did not have enough money to take better care of those who had served and sacrificed, but this did not explain why we were treated differently. Why should I be expected to survive on a few pounds a week, even that pathetic amount was reduced at the slightest excuse? While an officer was provided with enough to live comfortably and someone like Field Marshal Montgomery was rewarded with thousands of pounds a year and given a grand house and estate in the country? How had their risk and sacrifice been greater than mine? Nor was it all about money or security for the future, I did not want a hand out what I needed was a way forward and some guidance. What did they say during the war: “Give me the tools and I will do the job?” This is all I wanted now, the tools and a job accompanied by some good advice and continuing support.

The result of this visit from the army resulted in a further visit which showed that there was a system and it was being applied to me. It was probably about a month afterwards that an elderly lady arrived announcing that she was from the Red Cross and had come to solve all my problems regarding my future survival. After my discharge from hospital she would with my agreement arrange for me to be sent to an establishment in the country somewhere in Cheshire. Here I would spend some weeks learning how to run a chicken farm, which would allow me to earn a living running a farm of my own. The Red Cross had this scheme to provide farms for the production of eggs which were purchased at a set price by the National Egg Marketing Board. The farms were purchased for disabled ex-service people such as me by way of an interest free loan from the Red Cross. Without business or legal advice they expected a young man like me to make an instant decision regarding this offer. Was this a good offer or not? I had no idea, anyway I could not see myself as a chicken farmer; what a prospect to put before a young man without further explanation. All I wanted was to go home, where I would feel safe and in familiar surroundings; naturally I refused the offer which was the only one I received from the Red Cross.

With nothing to do but rest and do as little as possible from a physical perspective we were bored most of the time. Most of us were young and unused to making our own amusements which is why we did some ridiculous and juvenile things to amuse ourselves and pass the time. There were conventional things like reading and listening to the radio on the earphones provided to each and every patient. The radio transmissions were mostly internal with little good reception from the outside. From a small studio within the hospital someone had the job of broadcasting messages accompanied by record requests, a service provided for a number of hours each day.

For a while we had a card school going, which provided some excitement when we played for money, though this was not approved by the staff. After a week or two our illegal gambling came to an abrupt end when we were caught red handed, or at least I was the one caught, more red faced than red handed. After my surgery I had been moved into one of the four bed units at the end of the block, where patients who were recovering from operations were given more protection from the open. Being confined to bed the card school decided that they would hold their game at my bedside. So they pulled my bed away from the wall and sat around me putting a board from the bathroom across my legs. The game of choice was solo which required us to put money into a pot for each round, when the round did not produce a winning hand, the pot grew. So here we were absorbed in our illegal activities with a huge pot piled up in the middle of the board when we were exposed. My bed was by a window with a flight of steps running past it, steps which dropped sufficiently to prevent anyone looking in the window, or so we had thought. We were safe enough because the steps were rarely used, that was another mistake we made, when a particularly tall doctor decide to pass that way and had no trouble looking in as he passed. At the sight of his startled gaze my partners in crime took off smartly, leaving me sitting with the evidence in front of me, and with nowhere to hide. I got it in the neck from the doctor of course, and had to promise never to do such a thing again, but we were doing no harm were we?


This was a picture that was posed for something to do; the boys in it were friends. The young man on the left, who is throwing the punch, was the one who gave himself varicose veins by excessive use of very hot water bottles held between his upper legs.

There were some with a natural aptitude for mischief and though I was not usually one of them, I have to admit that sometimes I enjoyed their pranks. The four bed unit I was in had a double door into another unit which was identical which had in its turn another similar door out into the corridor that ran past the two bed units I have described previously. This end unit of mine was a very popular spot because the end window it had on the inner side of the block was one from which you could see a similar window in the ladies block a short distance away. It was a very popular pastime to visit this window to get a look at female patients and to shout messages on occasions. It was all harmless fun but for the residents of the room it could become irritating at times to have these frequent visitors crowding in to bellow silly remarks. One chap in particular enjoyed these visits so much that he became particularly annoying; we never seemed to be free of him. The young man who occupied the bed nearest the offending window was a laboratory technician from Manchester, and he was one of nature’s practical jokers' with a very creative imagination. Putting his mind to work he decided to lay a trap for our persistent visitor.

Above the door to our room was a metal bar, so our ingenious companion decided to tie a metal jug to this bar with a piece of string. Filling it with water he then stood in on the door which was left slightly ajar, the booby trap being put in place a short time before we expected another visit from our annoying neighbour. It was with great glee that we lay in our beds waiting for the trap to be sprung, and when it happened it was very funny we thought but the victim we claimed was not the one we had been hoping for. It was a ward orderly who was late collecting sputum mugs who came dashing into the room, and what a shock she received when about a pint of cold water came splashing down onto her head.

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