When feisty former nurse Dilys Greenhalgh set last year’s Labour Party conference alight with an impassioned speech calling for improved standards in the NHS, she received a standing ovation from party leaders, including Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham.
But few among the audience will have been aware of the depths of poignancy in Dily’s own story, and of how her career nursing sick children and wounded soldiers in wartime Liverpool during a time of heartrending squalor and scarce resources became the driving force behind her passion.
Dilys, 85, who lives in Morecambe, started nurse training at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in her home city of Liverpool in 1945, at the age of 16.
In those days, diseases such as TB and meningitis were rife. Many of the children were admitted to hospital suffering from complications of TB, commonly referred to as ‘TB hips and spines’, resulting in damaged bones.
As part of their treatment, the young patients were immobilised, strapped to their beds for months, or even years, on end. Dilys remembers the heartbreak of seeing youngsters confined to their beds in the belief that this would somehow cure them.
“They were strapped down completely in what were called ‘TB frames’. They could only move their heads and their arms, and their legs were put on ‘extensions’ – which meant their legs were stretched out and tied at the bottom. They could be on these a couple of years or more.
“A lot of them were boys, seven or eight years old and that was their life, just strapped on these frames. And some of them were nursed on the balconies, even in the winter when it was bitterly cold.”
Another source of the distress was the sight of sick young children having to endure long periods of enforced separation from their mothers. The hospital, in common with many other hospitals, had a strict visiting policy restricting the amount of time parents could see their children, in the misguided belief that having parents around could hinder a child’s recovery.
“It was absolutely dreadful,” Dilys recalls.
“When I started nursing, the parents were allowed to come for half an hour on a Wednesday and an hour on a Saturday and Sunday. I can remember one sister going round and giving the toddlers some medication to put them to sleep and tucking them up.
“She would put a screen around the cot and say to the mother, ‘Just peep through the curtains because the child’s asleep and it’s doing him good’.
“So that child never saw its mother and she never got to pick it up and love it. It was terribly cruel, really, when you think about it.”
During wartime, Alder Hey doubled up as a makeshift war hospital treating wounded soldiers who arrived into Liverpool docks.
“One of the big liners would be used as a hospital ship. The boat would land at the docks and we’d get a warning over the tannoy at the hospital – every nurse with over six months of training was to go back on duty,” said Dilys.
“I can remember seeing all the army ambulances all the way up the main road, Prescot Road, as far as you could see, all these ambulances kept coming with all these men.”
Because Dilys had undergone extra training in the operating theatres as part of her general training, she was often asked to help out during groundbreaking surgery on the wounded soldiers to repair damaged limbs and muscles.
Many of the hospital doctors and staff were away serving in the war, which meant hospital staffing and resources were stretched to the limit. This meant nurses like Dilys were given responsibilities way beyond those expected of a trainee nurse, but it gave her experience in a wide range of skills – something, she says, that stood her in good stead throughout her 35-year nursing career.
The war created close relationships between hospital consultants and army medical staff, resulting in staff sharing knowledge and skills.
This led to an unexpected breakthrough in treating children who were suffering from lung abscesses, following complications from measles.
During a chance conversation, a consultant from Alder Hey managed to persuade an army medical officer to give him some penicillin to see if it would work on a toddler admitted with a lung abscess. Dilys recalls how staff were delighted when the X-ray showed a rapid improvement in the child’s condition. After this, the drug was widely used with young patients.
She can also remember being involved in clinical trials to test out a new drug for treating deadly TB meningitis and the joyous moment when staff realised medical science had triumphed.
“One little boy lived 29 days after the onset of the disease, which was unheard of. The next day he was still alive at 30 days, and then it got to 33 days. Everybody in the hospital was rejoicing; they couldn’t believe that someone with TB meningitis had lived to 33 days,” recalls Dilys.
The young patient survived and, after this, many other children made a remarkable recovery from this harrowing condition.
In return for working long hours, Dilys received the princely sum of three pounds and four shillings per month.
She feels her experiences at Alder Hey laid the foundations for a career devoted to nursing sick children that was grounded in compassion and a striving to reach the highest standards of care, despite the appalling conditions created by wartime austerity and over-stretched resources.
It is this philosophy that drives her passion as a health activist, campaigning against what she feels to be woefully low standards in today’s healthcare system.