Appendicitis - or was it? - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Appendicitis - or was it?

At Christmas 1945, my Aunty Nellie in Birmingham, who had learned of my increasing interest in serious music, sent me a wide-format illustrated book for children about the life of Beethoven. Aunty worked in Hudson's well-known book shop on Birmingham's New Street close to the mainline railway station that Grandad Winter used to tell me about. The book told the story of the composer's unhappy life in simple, easy-to-read detail. I was interested to read about his Moonlight Sonata, which I had then never heard of. I was devastated to read how Beethoven went deaf early in his life; I understood about deafness because my Aunty Joyce Wilman had been profoundly deaf and dumb from birth. Interspersed amongst the book's text were many musical examples transcribed so that children's fingers could play them on the piano. Unfortunately, I had no access to a piano so I had to read them in my mind and work out how they would sound. One piece I did know, though, was his Minuet in G that had been used in our school production of Cinderella. I was absolutely fascinated by the book and it became my constant companion for several years.

In the last couple of years of the war, I had become a thin, sickly child, more so than could be solely accounted for by the wartime diet. During those years, I had frequent colds, bodily aches and pains, and generally felt unwell for a lot of the time. "It's your age," my parents used to tell me. "You'll grow out of it." Nevertheless, I spent hours wearing dark glasses, lying in my underpants, under a sun-ray lamp at the local children's clinic in Margaret Street, adjacent to Sandy Walk behind what is now Wakefield College. I never knew quite what that was supposed to achieve but I found it all very wearying and worse was soon to come.
I had measles, mumps and chicken pox one after the other in quick succession, but so did most of the children at St James' School. As far as I know none of us were put into quarantine; we were deliberately kept at school to mix with all the others. We used to compare each other's spots and swollen glands and we stayed at home in bed only if we felt really unwell or had an obviously raised temperature. A few of my school friends with mumps actually had their tonsils removed "just to be on the safe side", but other parents, including mine, insisted their children had mumps not tonsillitis. The theory, amongst parents if not amongst the medical profession, seemed to be that the sooner all children had and recovered from mumps, measles and chicken pox, the better. I believe that practice is frowned upon these days although the first decade of the 21st Century had its own controversy concerning the MMR vaccine.

I joined the Cub Scouts pack that met once a week in the Parochial Hall adjacent to St James' Church on Denby Dale Road. That made a pleasant change because there were new and interesting things for me to do and I made new friends with boys from other schools. However, early in 1946 when I was approaching the age when I would have to leave the Cubs and join the Scouts, I started suffering from increasingly severe pain in the right hand side of my abdomen. I was referred by our doctor to Clayton Hospital; he told Dad to take me there straightaway to what today we call Accident & Emergency - it was only about 5 minutes' walk from the doctor's surgery.

Above: Clayton Hospital closed in 2012 but I remember walking through this red door with my Dad and being wheeled out 10 days later on a stretcher and being loaded into an ambulance. I also remember, vaguely, being wheeled along the corridor in the centre (which was much longer in 1946) to the operating theatre.
We were obviously expected. Dad was told to remain in the hospital waiting room while a nurse led me off down several corridors and into a small cubicle. The nurse told me to take all my clothes off and lie on the bunk bed. After what seemed like an age, a doctor entered the room and I was horrified to be subjected to a DRE (digital rectal examination). I found it quite painful and humiliating, especially as the doctor never explained to me why he was doing what he was doing. Even worse, the nurse remained in attendance: I was old enough by then to be embarrassed at being naked in front of a woman. The doctor never said a single word to me. When he had finished, he disappeared without a word. The nurse told me to get dressed and then she led me back to the waiting room. Dad asked me what the doctor had done. I couldn't bring myself to describe what had happened, so I just said that he had looked at me and pressed my stomach. Eventually the doctor returned and announced that I had acute appendicitis and needed to be admitted immediately to have my appendix removed before it burst. It was then about midday.

Dad was sent off home and I was left alone, hungry, thirsty and frightened. Eventually someone took me off to a long ward that had at least twenty beds in it, all of them unoccupied. A nurse came and told me to get undressed and then she held out what she called a theatre gown. I remember thinking that this was a very strange back-to-front garment. The nurse tied the strings of the gown behind me. She told me to get into the bed nearest the entrance to the ward and then I was left all alone again. At some stage another nurse came and gave me an injection in my bum. "This will make you sleepy before you go for your operation", she said, cheerily, but it did nothing of the sort. Eventually a kindly man came to my bed, lifted me onto his trolley and wheeled me from the ward, across the covered corridor, and into the operating theatre. It was exactly 3pm as we set off - I noted the time on the large clock on the wall in the ward.

Still no-one had told me what to expect. I thought they were going to start cutting me up while I was still wide awake because the pre-med injection had not made me at all sleepy but, before I could say anything, someone clamped a mask over my face. I started to panic and struggle. The anaesthetic was the old-fashioned ether gas, although I didn't know that then. Strong hands held me firmly down when the gas started to flow and I remember fighting violently and screaming as I choked. Someone else had to restrain my flailing legs. A disembodied male voice calmly told me to start counting out loud down from 50. I distinctly remember getting to about 30, struggling and pausing my countdown every few seconds to scream. I wondered what would happen when I got to zero but I never got that far. I took one very deep breath, intending to let out an enormous scream, but I passed out. I had livid, purple, bruises on my arms for days afterwards but, more importantly, for many years I had regular nightmares about that experience and always woke up thrashing around in my bed, terrified, sweating and clutching at my throat.

When I came out of the anaesthetic I was back in the same bed on the ward. The first thing I noticed was the clock on the wall - it showed 5.20pm and I recognised the BBC Children's Hour wireless programme playing out of a loudspeaker. I looked around but all the adjacent beds were still empty. I was all on my own, absolutely no-one else in sight. I felt a terrible pain in my abdomen. I tentatively pulled back the bed sheets and opened my pyjama jacket, wondering who had put the pyjamas on me. I expected to see a large rectangle of cut flesh where the surgeon had opened me up but all I could see was a large dressing fixed in place by long strips of sticking plaster which, alarmingly, were oozing with blood.

Suddenly I felt sick and urgently needed a pee. No-one responded to my repeated shouts for help, so I carefully swung my legs onto the floor and attempted to stand up, but I fell to the floor, dizzy and in great pain. I must have passed out because the next thing I knew was a nurse telling me off for getting out of bed but at least she brought me a bottle so I could relieve myself. It was then 5.40pm on the Ward clock. Twenty minutes had elapsed since I had woken from the anaesthetic. So much for recovery care and attention!

On their first permitted visit to me in hospital, two whole days after my operation, Mum and Dad brought me Enid Blyton's Castle of Adventure - the second of the 'Adventure' series, each of which had over 300 pages, twice the length of the Famous Five stories. I had been told that I would be in hospital for at least seven days, so I rationed myself to a maximum of about 50 pages per day. The book was very exciting, but I stuck strictly to my self-imposed daily ration. On the 4th day I was carried from the main ward to an outside veranda and put into a bed in the farthest corner. All the other beds out there, about eight of them, were already occupied. At least I was no longer in solitary. None of us were allowed to leave our beds - not even go to the toilet - we had to use a bottle and a bedpan. That was embarrassing because the two nearest beds to me were occupied by girls, older than me, who would insist on making improper suggestions.

One day a nurse came and, with what looked to me like an ordinary domestic pair of round-nose pliers such as Dad had in his toolbox, removed the 7 or 8 metal clips that were equally spaced along the line of my operation wound. My worry now was that any movement I made would cause the wound to split open. The nurse said, "Let me worry about that." She added that there were still five stitches that would hold things together. A couple of days later, the same nurse came back and removed the stitches. On the 7th day, a Friday, when I was expecting and hoping to be sent home, a doctor came and examined me. He said that my wound was infected and that I would have to stay in hospital over the weekend for observation.

I was in hospital for a total of 10 days and, for reasons best known to the medical staff, in all that time I was never allowed to walk more than a few steps unaided. My parents had been allowed to visit me only once and then for only an hour; apparently that was quite normal in the 1940s. The time had passed exceedingly slowly. On my last day, Dad came early afternoon to collect me. He brought a pair of my own pyjamas, so I was at last able to discard the hospital set, still complete with my blood stains, that I had worn continuously since my operation. One of the girls who had tormented me the most was crying copiously - not because I was leaving but because she had just been told that she needed another operation. I felt sorry for her.

A hospital porter helped me into a wheelchair and pushed me to a waiting ambulance. When we arrived back home in Cotton Street, several of the neighbours were standing around to welcome me home. Dad carried me into the house and straight upstairs into bed. It all seemed unnecessary because by then I felt perfectly capable of walking unaided. I started back at school one week later.

About a month after my operation I went with my parents to the cinema where the newly-released film Green for Danger was showing. That famous film, starring the lugubrious but brilliant Alistair Sim, is about patients being murdered on the operating table in a wartime military hospital because the villain of the piece had filled the oxygen cylinders with carbon dioxide. In those days we often went to the cinema without actually knowing in advance what the film was about; had my parents known what the subject was they probably would not have taken me. As it was, I enjoyed the film with a kind of morbid fascination, but it merely caused my nightmares to be more dramatic.

Several decades later, I learned that although the surgeon may possibly have removed my appendix while he had me opened up, I did not actually have appendicitis, but something called TB Glands. Both my sister, who later became a theatre sister at Clayton Hospital, and my parents knew that I had not had appendicitis but no-one thought to mention it to me - until about 40 years later when my sister enlightened me. The curious thing is that whatever the surgeon did, my health improved dramatically after the operation and I quickly became a very fit young man.

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