Monday, April 19, 2010

"Doctor in the House" used as an historical source


Being in bed sick for the past week, I was listening to LBC (London Talkback) radio over the Internet one afternoon when they were talking about the choice between a woman giving birth at home or in the hospital. Unsurprisingly the presenter, Jeni Barnett was all in favour of home births. In fact at one stage she mentioned that she simply could not understand why the British National health Service began the policy whereby it insisted that births take place in the hospital.


Jeni, being born in 1949, might have been having (as my parent's like saying a lot), "a senior moment" and she obviously had forgotten what life was like in the East End of London in the 1940s and 1950s. I don't actually remember first hand but I've seen plenty of films from that time to give me a pretty good idea.



By coincidence, that very day, a book of comedy sketches from a pile of books my wife had recently sorted out over Pesach caught my eye. I remember reading this book some 25 years ago. Flicking through it, one chapter caught my eye.

It was an excerpt from the book "Doctor in the House" 1952 by Richard Gordon where he describes the events that took place when, as a junior doctor; he was on night call at St Swithin's NHS hospital. He was awoken at 4:00am and told to rush to a home to supervise the delivery of a baby.










It was a tall, dead-looking tenement forever saturated with the smells of brewing ad shunting. I banged on the knocker and waited.

A thin female child of about five opened the door.
'I'm the doctor,' I announced.

The arrival of the obstetrician in such a briskly multiplying area caused no more stir than the visit of the milkman.
'Upstairs, mate,' she said and scuttled away into the darkness like a rat.
The house breathed the sweet stench of bed-bugs; inside it was dark, wet and rotting. I fumbled my way to the stairs and creaked upwards. On the second floor a door opened a foot, a face peered through, and as the shaft of light caught me it was slammed shut. It was on the fifth and top floor that the accouchement seemed to be taking place, as there was noise and light coming from under one of the doors. I pushed it open and lumbered in.
'Don't worry!' I said. 'I have come.'
I took a look round the room. It wasn't small, but a lot was going on in it. In the centre, three or four children were fighting on the pockmarked linoleum for possession of their plaything, a piece of boxwood with a nail through it. A fat woman was unconcernedly making a cup of tea on a gas-ring in one corner, and in the other a girl of about seventeen with long yellow hair was reading last Sunday's News of the World. A cat, sympathetic to the excited atmosphere, leapt hysterically among the children. Behind the door was a bed beside which was grandma--who always appears on these occasions, irrespective of the social standing of the participants. Grandma was giving encouragement tempered with warning to the mother, a thin, pale, fragile woman on the bed, and it was obvious that the affair had advanced alarmingly. A tightly-packed fire roared in the grate and above the mantelpiece Field-Marshal Montgomery, of all people, looked at the scene quizzically.

'Her time is near, doctor,' said grandma with satisfaction.
'You have no need to worry any longer, missus,' I said brightly.
I dropped the kit on the floor and removed my duffle coat, which wept dirty streams on to the lino. The first step was to get elbow room and clear out the non-playing members of the team.
'Who are you?' I asked the woman making tea.
'From next door,' she replied. 'I thought she'd like a cup of tea, poor thing.'
'I want some hot water,' I said sternly. 'Lots of hot water. Fill basins with it. Or anything you like. Now you all go off and make me some hot water. Take the children as well. Isn't it past their bedtime?'
'They sleep in 'ere, doctor,' said grandma."

Despite being a comedy, I believe that the living conditions he describes in the book are pretty accurate. Reading his account it seems clear to me why the NHS pushed for hospital births only policy back in the early 1950s.

Lest you think that I am nostalgic for the NHS in Britain, I remember my uncle telling me, the last time I was in England that it took him 7 days to see his family doctor when he was suffering with the flu. This is despite the fact that he is in his 90s and ought to be given preferential treatment. I told him with some satisfaction that in Israel, you could receive an appointment for a family doctor on the same day you call some 90% of the time.

In another strange coincidence, when I phoned to make an appointment at my local "Kupat Cholim" I was given an appointment with a doctor who had only recently made aliyah from England. When I introduced myself as originally from Woodford Green, he preceded to inform me, with a large grin, that he had been a junior doctor at King George hospital only a few miles from where I grew up. He made me strip to the waist and commented on my large appendix scar.

I was happy to tell him that I had received this at none other than King Georges. I related how, at the age of 10, my parents rushed me into the emergency ward of King George one Sunday, having forgotten that they had closed their emergency ward down due to government cuts only the week before. (It must have been 1974). As an official was explaining that they would have to take me to Whipps Cross I very obligingly through up all over him. He considered this event sufficient to ask a doctor to examine me whereupon I was placed on a trolley and taken (as far as I can remember) straight into surgery.

I remember being woken up to the sickly smell of fried bacon and the terrible pain of fresh stitches in my groin.

If that wasn't bad enough, Tony Blackburn of Radio 1 was sticking a microphone in my face and asking me if I snored. (He was recording for a radio programme later that day).



The Kupat Cholim doctor assured me that the emergency ward was now open once again for business at King George. I seem to remember that the King George I was in, was on the main road to Romford, very near Newbury Park Tube Station and was a very old looking building. As far as I recall, it was demolished or sold off for flats sometime in the 1980s. He must be talking about a new King George in the same area? When I did a Google on the place it seems as if my assumption was correct. King George today is a modern looking red brick teaching hospital. I noticed that the Google results returned numerous entries on the subject of the campaign to save the hospital from closure. It seems that some things never change when it comes to the NHS.

1 comment:

Bouncer said...

Refuoh shleimo Reb Mordechai!