Rock musician Ian Dury is someone who knows all about the inside of hospitals. He contracted polio in 1949, aged seven, probably in the public swimming pool at Southend.
In and out of hospitals for years, his most vivid memories are of Black Notley Hospital in Essex, a rehabilitation unit where he spent several months. Even then it was an old building with paint peeling off the walls and long dormitories for the children. It has since closed.
‘Aged eight-and-a-half, I was a ‘polio victim’,’ he says. ‘I was one of the slitherers - the boys who could get ourselves out of bed in the mornings but couldn’t walk so we slithered over to the basins on blankets. They had basins built about a foot off the floor. The orderly would come along and brush your hair while you were brushing your teeth.
‘If any of the boys were naughty they’d take us down the end of the ward where there was a geezer in an iron lung. All you could see was this big silver box, making this horrible wheezing noise, and the
reflection of this geezer’s eyes in a mirror, peering at you.’
Treatment involved enforced bending of children’s paralysed limbs - brutal and all but useless. ‘There
was a physiotherapy ward known as the screaming
ward. All the way down there you heard screaming,
while there you screamed, and all you heard on the way back was screaming. This was not Nazi Germany, mind you, it was Braintree in the 1950s.’
As in most institutions, ritual humiliation and sexual abuse were common. ‘I’ll never forget one evil Dickensian bastard of an orderly who gathered a crowd before whipping the blankets off me to show everyone I’d shit the bed.’ There are other things he won’t forget, either.
Despite all this, Mr Dury remains committed to the NHS which provided all his treatment. Now a goodwill ambassador promoting polio vaccination for the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, he has travelled in Africa and seen first-hand what it means to be poor and lack access to health services.
‘I was in hospital as the NHS came into being. I’m still a great believer.’ Daloni Carlisle