by Margaret Taylor, age 25 years
April to September 1939
Meg is still studying to qualify as a doctor at the London School of Medicine. She gets to perform her first surgical operation.
Everything changes at the outbreak of World War II
(Second edition: updated 20th Sept 2020)
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Sunday April 30th 1939
Bulkeley and I have just spent a wonderful day in the country staying with Miss Ross, to collect foliage for decorating the common room of L.S.M. for a formal dinner. I have just written about it at length in my letter home and as it is a day I want to remember, I am going to reiterate it all here.
We left hospital soon after 4 pm, taking our pyjamas and toothbrushes according to instructions! Miss Ross drove us out at a furious rate, and although it was showery the bright intervals between the showers were glorious. She lives at Herons Gate, about 20 miles out of London and near Watford and Rickmansworth. The house was a small one not far from the main road, but so secluded that it was difficult to realise that civilisation was anywhere near.
We met Miss Ross's sister on our arrival, and though we smile at our Miss Ross and think she dresses rather oddly, it was difficult to refrain from laughing outright at her sister. She had a khaki outfit on, tunic and short skirt and the collar of a shirt-like garment strongly resembling pyjama tops appeared at the neck. She had a long thin face with parchmenty skin and very wrinkled like our Miss Ross’s, but she was much stouter, in fact almost barrel-shaped, and her hair was not cut in an Eton-crop, but stood out wavy and stiff all round like a greyish golliwog’s. Her voice was identical with Miss Ross’s - very deep and strong, in fact we never knew which was speaking when they were both in the room.
Our Miss Ross soon changed into her house clothes, and though they did not seriously rival her sisters they were outstandingly countrified. We wondered whether all Scotswomen at home in their highlands dressed similarly.
Anyway we thanked our stars that we could let all visiting manners fly to the winds, and felt at home immediately.
We were each provided with a pair of strong pruning pliers and taken out within five minutes of our arrival. Miss Ross pointed out the best woods for birches and beeches and directed us as to what to do when we got lost! She then said come back when we wanted to, and they could keep supper for us, and left us standing at the top of the open field behind her house, gazing across at the miles of greenery in front.
The country was really interestingly lovely. We met a gypsy encampment at the end of the lane and they said “Good evening, Miss” as we passed. The pony did not look so polite, but he didn’t do anything. There were whole carpets of bluebells and some clumps of primroses scattered about, and more violets than I have ever seen growing wild. We climbed fences and clambered over gates and through hedges. It started raining pretty hard at one time, but we just couldn’t waste time sheltering, but turned our coat collars up and took no more notice. We cut heaps of birches and beech boughs and as we hadn’t any string it was difficult to carry them, but we only enjoyed carrying them more because of it, and even having to toss the bundles over the gates and hedges before climbing them was great fun. We did not go back till it was nearly dark and as we crossed the field to the back gate of the house several of the cows we passed started following us, and we wondered frantically whether they were merely expecting us to feed them with our hard-won foliage, or whether they didn’t like the look of us and would charge. We certainly covered the last 20 yards at more than normal walking pace and were glad to shut the gate impolitely in their faces as they arrived there about 2 seconds after we did.
Supper was badly cooked by the other Miss Ross but we were ravenous and enjoyed every bit of it. Afterwards we sat by the log fire and listened to the news, and then helped Miss Ross by reading through and checking the references in the latest edition of her textbook, which is in the process of being printed.
Bulkeley had first bath and went to bed fairly early as she was tired and was conserving her strength for finals on Monday.
Later Miss Ross made tea and we all had a cup before retiring. My bedroom was small, and the walls were whitewashed blue. There were two windows, and a veranda in front of one of them. Both looked out onto miles of countryside, and I hadn’t the heart to close the curtains though leaving them open made the room rather light, and the moon was reflected in the panel of glass in the wardrobe.
I slept so soundly that it took me several minutes to remember where I was after Bulkeley had shaken and me awake about 7 a.m. We dressed in about three minutes and set off to collect bluebells to carry back with us. Miss Ross called out to us as we were going that we could take an apple each out of the apple shed at the end of the garden. We accepted the offer with relish, and the apples were heavenly. The wood was still very wet and frosty, and the fields looked so much more inviting in the sunshine that we walked a long way across them before we returned to the woods and the bluebells. Miss Ross came out with one of the Sealyhams, to collect us for breakfast, and after breakfast we tied up the branches in bundles and stowed them away in the car. Then we waved goodbye to Miss Ross’s sister and had a hilarious ‘zooming’ ride back to London and sanity. We are both longing to be asked out there again!
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Sunday, June 11, 1939
I feel really worn out just now, and am joyfully anticipating 10 days or a fortnight’s holiday at home, to start tomorrow. The main reason has been futile worrying over Mum’s thyroid trouble. About three weeks ago, like a bolt from the blue, came a letter asking advice about which surgeon to consult, as she had been having ‘attacks’ of pain in the neck and some mild pressure symptoms.
This worried me very much indeed, for although I guessed the reason for the symptoms was very probably an oedema with recurrent haemorrhage into it, I just could not get the possibility is malignancy out of my head; and I had heard that Aunt Jessie died of something sounding suspiciously like a malignant thyroid.
Then came the relief of Mr Cooke’s report, and the knowledge, too, that he was such a charming person and an absolutely reliable and able surgeon. I arranged my holiday so that I could go home just before Mums had to go into hospital; but the day before my scheduled departure came a letter from Miss Mollen calling me to an interview with the Scholarships Committee on Monday June 12th - two days after Mum’s operation.
It was impossible to return for the interview for less than £1, so I have just to make the best of staying up here during the weekend, when I would have been of the most use at home, and when I was longing to be near at hand to hear of her progress. Daddy rang me up last night to say that Mr Cooke was very pleased with Mums, and that she had had paraldehyde pre-op and was sleeping peacefully when he saw her in the afternoon. Podge’s high-pitched little voice chattering away was a real tonic, but to hear from Dad that he had been in to see Mum made it all seem so real that the whole thing stared me straight in the face for the first time, and frightened me a bit. Before that I had not been able to realise fully that it was really Mums who was having the op. we were all planning so busily. Anyway, it is mostly over now, and well over too, thank goodness, so no more worrying. Daddy is sending me a postcard tonight and I am wanting that, for it was too early to say much really last night. Mrs Beaman rang me up this morning - she turns up trumps every time.
Since my last entry on work, I have done Junior Comb. and I’m now almost finishing Senior Surgery on Mr Norbury’s post. Junior Comb. was good fun though not wildly exciting. Mr Venall is an interesting and likeable old-fashioned type of doctor, with a refreshing amount of common-sense. He was the main attraction on that post, and his outpatients were the pièce de résistance each week. Horton disappointed me bitterly. I had read a small amount of psychological medicine before I went there, and had found it fascinating and stimulating reading. But Horton is a dreary old and most unfriendly place, at least when visited in the winter, and the patients were just as dreary, and appeared ill cared for and like animals rather than people. In fact ‘lunies’, though of great interest in the abstract, I found most uncongenial in the flesh, and my tentative speculations on delving more deeply into that branch of medicine came to a speedy dissolution. Dr. Heald with his electrical therapy and his exasperatingly slow and ambiguous conversation, reminded me of the Middle Ages and reliance on witchcraft and a bit of luck thrown in. He never diagnosed a case while I was with him - though admittedly he gets all the undiagnosable chronics the hospital owns.
It is, I suppose, good for my soul to have to acknowledge that such an apparent fool is recognised by those well qualified to judge, as a very clever person! Mr Williams, X-ray expert(?) was an unfailing source of entertainment, but supplied no information whatsoever on X-rays. Sister Win was a rather bulky but very luminous star on the horizon throughout the post and her duets with Mr Venall on Tuesdays and Fridays were occasionally magnificent.
And now I am in the third month of Mr Norbury’s post, and am enjoying it as much as any post I have done, and more than any except Casualty or Junior Medicine perhaps. I was made senior, not because I was properly elected by a majority vote but because Westerman, who was elected, had transferred to the Cancer, and the other three seniors were all taking exams. But I certainly have been doing a full senior’s work, and it entails quite a lot of organisation and overseeing. I have been fully repaid for my troubles though, for the juniors come to me all the time for advice, and obey instructions willingly though their conscientiousness is remarkable for its absence on many occasions. Even at school I could manage to be an authority without ‘bossing’ too much, and it is working just the same here, though perhaps I treat them too much like schoolgirls. It is gratifying when they say how they will miss me when I go on holiday - but I know too well what those compliments are worth to get swollen-headed about it!
Mr. Norbury is a person I shan’t forget, for he embodies most of my ideal qualities of a doctor, and is yet our inimitable Mr. Norbury at the same time. He is like a perky grey-haired little bird, hopping round and chirping joyfully day in and day out.
No patient is merely a ‘case’ for him, and no two ‘appendices’ are exactly alike. Surgery, one feels, is just as thrilling for him today as it was on his first house job, and his humility has not gone with his increase in knowledge and experience. There is nothing which stamps a fine person so surely as their humility (c.f. Mr. Joll !!)
I shall be sorry to miss the next 10-14 days of his post, but I want much more to go home, so go I certainly shall. E.N.T.s is to be the next 3 months’ effort - + pathology and fevers. Exams seem dangerously near, and I am working pretty hard now-a-days, to prevent a hectic scramble just before November.
I think I’ve written enough for today…
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Sunday, July 23rd 1939
I feel I want to write a little tonight, just to communicate my first real operation in a theatre - I have done a few ‘minor ops’ in casualty before of course.
On the last Wednesday on the Norbury post Mr Norbury asked me whether I would like to do a small operation. This is a reward he offers his seniors now and again, but not every senior gets it, so it is quite an honour.
Of course I said I should love to, and as it was the end of the post he said I must remind him about it and come back and do it later. I asked Bottomley to remind him and he said I could do a lipoma or something equivalent. This damped me a little, as I had been helping him for an appendix or a hernia, but still I was excited about it, and very qualified for the opportunity. Bottomley wrote specially for a lipoma case from the General List and one came in last week.
It was only a small lipoma of the thigh, but it was unusually deeply situated, and was causing pain in the leg so the patient wanted it removed, though Mr. Norbury when he saw it advised her to keep her leg intact.
When she was anaesthetised Mr. Norbury could not locate the lump, and for a few minutes I thought it was going to be a complete wash-out. But at length he felt it, and made a scratch marking its position. I made an incision where his scratch mark was, about 4 - 5 ins long, and went on through the subcutaneous tissues. He and Bottomley secured the bleeding points, for I had enough to do to just perform the cutting part. I had to go very deeply for the lipoma turned out to be within two adductor muscle sheaths, and I was dreading that every bleeding point as it arose might be the femoral vein or artery which I had slashed! Mr. Norbury told me what plane to dissect on, and after several minutes wandering amongst fatty subcutaneous tissues the upper lobe of the encapsulated lipoma popped out from the muscle sheath, to be greeted with joyful exclamations by Mr. Norbury and a sigh of relief by myself. I then dissected out the lipoma, cutting where directed, and causing Mr. Norbury some anxiety by my determination to cut the muscle fibres rather than the lipoma - goodness knows why - perhaps I wanted to keep the specimen intact, or had vague fears that it might puncture like a cyst! On removal it turned out to be about 2 ins. in diameter, and it was most satisfying after the former doubts, that there had really been something there to remove.
Mr. Norbury left Bottomley to help me sew up while he started on the next op - a fistula-in-ano. I had some difficulty in getting the ligatures to sit over the end of the Spencer Wells and not at their tips - a difficulty I had never anticipated, or noticed other surgeons experience! But it felt very grand to be handed ligatures by the student doing instruments, and putting on the Michel clips fulfilled an ambition I have harboured for ages.
Those who knew that I was going to do an op said how dreadful it would be to have to perform in front of the assembled Norbury post, but actually I was too completely absorbed in the work on hand to even think of the others watching me. I didn’t do it very well, and must have appeared very amateurish to anyone watching, but I don’t think Mr. Norbury was annoyed with me, though I don’t think he could have been very pleased. Anyway I didn’t feel at all nervous, and my hands certainly didn’t tremble or fumble overmuch, so it was not as bad as it might have been. It was very nice of Mr. Norbury to think of letting a student do an op which to him must seem absolutely childish, and it must be very aggravating to keep your hands to yourself when you can do perfectly what someone else is making a great to-do about.
Well, that was what I wanted to say, so
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Saturday, Sept. 30th 1939
Not so very long since I wrote last, but things have changed somewhat! The war has been in progress for nearly a month, and we are beginning to lose the initial tenseness and are resigning ourselves to a prolonged period of hostilities and frightfulness. Thank goodness we all got our holidays just before all this began, for otherwise we should have been verging on nervous wrecks I expect - I feel already that I should enjoy another holiday!
Somehow all the prophecies and gossipings about the chances of war , that have been current for months past, did little or nothing to soften the shock of the actual outbreak of war when it came.
The quiet, determined and fatal tone of Mr. Chamberlain’s speech at 11:15 that Sunday morning we shall all remember for a very long time. Air-raids we have not yet experienced, and I for one am dreading them with heart and soul.They are, I fear, almost inevitable; but the thoughts of the injuries and destruction they cause are too vivid to contemplate.
The most helpful attitude at present seems to be one that recognises only each day as it comes, and looks no further. Thank goodness we students here have enough to occupy our days, and keep us from mooning. The hospital staff remaining - Dr. Hancock, Miss Barry, Miss Vaux, Miss Ball, Mr. Quist, Mr. Adler, Miss Moore-White - have taught us liberally and we feel that this horrid time of waiting about for air raid casualties has not been wasted.
Arlesey plans have collapsed more or less completely and now they are arranging for us to start posts as usual at R.F.H. next week. Goodness knows how long we shall have undisturbed. At present we volunteers are having all meals free, but next week I suppose we shall have to return to paid rations.
London is changing its old unchangeable face. Great sandbag edifices rise up all over the place, while paint is daubed on kerbs, railings and lamp-posts, and windows are decorated with thick black curtains of paper. The streets are lit only by the moon, and on a moonless night a walk is like Blind Man’s Buff, and crossing a road is done at your imminent peril - as our many casualty cases demonstrate. When peace comes again we shall certainly know how to appreciate it.
What a crazy world! Goodnight!