Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A Childhood Experience

When I was nearly two, I was admitted to hospital. 

Evidently, I limped badly when I started to walk.  The local hospital diagnosed this as weak ankles and my mother had to do massage exercises on my ankles.

A chance meeting in a local park changed all that.  The woman who sat near my mother was a nurse at an orthopaedic hospital.  She watched me walking and said, ‘That child has a dislocated hip.  Take her to see …”

The upshot was that I was taken to the specialist she had suggested, and the diagnosis was confirmed.  I had been born with a congenitally dislocated hip.  This was in the 1940’s, long before any post-natal checks were carried out for the ‘clicking’ sound of a dislocated hip which can now be easily resolved..

The specialist who saw me was experimenting with a new method of correcting this kind of dislocation.  Prior to WW2, the method had been to cut open and manually put the joint into place.  The new experiment involved manipulation by putting the joint into plaster to ‘force’ it back into place.

I was a ‘guinea-pig’ in this experiment. I went into hospital in July, a month before my second birthday and came out 15 months later.  For 12 of those months, I was in plaster (in a frog-type position) to correct my hip problem.

This, remember, was the 1940’s.  At that time, parents were considered a nuisance.  Their visits caused the children to get upset when they left. 

My mother was allowed to visit for one hour once a month (yes, really!).  On each visit, she had to take 4 stamped addressed postcards, and each week the nurse in charge of the ward where I was wrote a brief summary of my progress.

My mother saved all those postcards.  I still have them.  Very brief and mainly meaningless.   ‘She has had her operation and is doing well’ – ‘She continues to do well’ (several times).

The best one was ‘She has been very naughty this week.’ How on earth could I be naughty when I was in plaster from waist to ankle and confined to bed?  Hah!

I have absolutely no recollection of this time in hospital. Maybe I’ve blanked it out.  I was 3 years and 2 months when I came out of hospital in October and my first memory comes from the first Christmas back at home. 

But some of those postcards make me weep. ‘She is chattering away to everyone and anyone’ – ‘She is very curious and asks lots of questions.’  Yeah, well, I still do that!

It was only when I had my own children that I realised just what my mother and I had missed during the third year of my life.  The year between a child’s 2nd and 3rd birthdays are probably the most formative years.  The child learns to talk, the mother starts to see the real personality of her child.

I honestly don’t know how my mother managed to cope with that.  If anyone had taken my kids away from me at that age, I would have been totally distraught.

But she thought she was doing the right thing – and in that era, she probably was.

I know now that separation from my mother during my third year resulted in a lack of real bonding with my mother.  My father was away in the army until I was nearly four, so there was no bonding with him either.

I often wonder what long-term effects that separation from my parents has had on me as a person.  I’ll never really know, will I?

Just as a postscript, I was hailed as one of the specialist’s ‘successes’ for his new method and when I was about eight, I remember being paraded in front of several American doctors as proof of his success.  Over sixty years later, having been plagued by arthritis in my hip for over 30 years, I have to wonder about that ‘success’!  

This post is in participation with the Group Blogging Experience, and this week’s prompt is children and/or parent(s). If you want to blog with us, go to the GBE2 Facebook page and request to join the group. Everyone is welcome. 


  1. Wow! What a story. I don't think the National Health has actually improved much since then :)

  2. Wow! Unbelievable. I had rheumatic fever at 11(also in the 40s)and had to stay in bed not even get up to go to the bathroom. When no one was looking I hung over the side of the bed to get things I wanted and did all sorts of things, but never touched a foot to the floor.


  3. Barry, I think there's far more understanding these days about the psychological and emotional needs of a child in hospital.

    Marilyn, can just imagine you doing contortions trying to reach things but of course without ever putting a foot on the floor!

  4. I know that everyone concerned believed they were doing the right thing for you and physically, in terms of available treatment, they probably were; but oh, you poor little girl to be without your Mummy for so long. How sad.

  5. Actually, Sarah, I feel sadder for my mother than for myself. I think kids, esepcially at the age I was, are very adaptable. But she missed out on so much of my early development.

  6. My ankles turned in also, but only from weak ankles. My parents had me take tap and ballet to strengthen them. Too bad your problem was more serious than mine.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Hi Morgan
    My mother reckoned I probably had the strongest ankles ever, after all the massaging she did on them, before the real cause was diagnosed.

  8. I, too, wonder what you could have done to be considered naughty? Maybe you can find solace in working this traumatic experience into a story someday.

  9. John - my naughtiness was probably being cheeky!

    Claudia - I have absolutely no memory of being in hospital, so obviously don't remember whether I was happy or not!

  10. This post brings to the surface how much things have changed in the medical world for the better. When we were kids, if penicillin didn't cure it, nothing would! I loved reading this, but do feel a great pain for your mom, I cannot imagine my child being available to me once a month for over a year! Bless her heart for putting your needs ahead of her own...oh yeah, she's a mom and that's what we do.

  11. This story is incredible. At first I was curious if this was a work of fiction. I don't know how I would handle news like that, having to have my child in a hospital for that long and not really being able to visit. That would break my heart.

  12. Jo - I agree, my mum had to be so strong to do what she had to do for my sake. During that time, she also lost her own mother and her husband was away in the armed forces. it must have been one helluva awful year for her.

    Autumn - it's the absolute truth. Plus I was in a hospital about 40 miles from where my mother lived, which was a long way in the 1940's. She had to catch two trains and theen had a long walk from the station to the hospital. I often wonder what she felt as she returned home, knowing she wouldn't see me again for another month.

  13. Wow! That's an amazng (and troubling) story. Things certainly have changed. I can't imagine a mother being away from her child for that long. It sounds like you and your mother went through a lot that year.

    When I was in the hospital this summer (for less than a week) my hubby stayed overnight with me every single night. We couldn't bear the thought of being apart for even that short amount of time.

  14. Hi Debra - things have definitely changed, and for the better. Psychological and emotional aspects of separation are understood much better these days. I don't remember any of it, but I think my mother must have had had the hardest year any mother could have.

  15. It sounds so barbaric now, what your poor mother went through, Paula. I remember a niece had some kind of cast on for a hip problem as a baby around the late 70s, but she certainly wasn't taken away to hospital for all that time!

    It's an amazing true story - maybe it would be interesting for you to explore (as a writer) what that must have done to your mother, and your growing up relationship.

  16. Paula--I'm stunned. I've never heard of such a thing. Yes, we've come a long way in the medical field, and thank God for most of it. But to allow your mother only one visit a month is pure torture and to me, criminal. Those certainly were the days when a doctor had all the power--now, patients can call the shots much of the time.
    I'm truly sorry about the separation. Can you write story about it? It might make a good novel-but from whose POV?
    Arthritis in the hip--sorry about that, too.
    I couldn't pass this post up--as I have many this morning. Wednesdays are very busy--have a good day...Celia

  17. Wow, 15 months in a hospital for a dislocated hip! I can't imagine being separated from my children for that long. Your mother must have been one dedicated and brave woman to go through that (and mostly alone since your dad was in the Army).

  18. That must have been horrific for your mother. Wow, that story sounds so 'barbaric' now.

  19. Rosemary - the click test for discovering hip dislocation was 'invented' in the 1960's, I think. After that, it became much simpler to replace the hip while the baby's bones are still comparatively soft, so the resulting treatment took a much shorter time.

    Celia (and Rosemary too!) - I've never thought about writing about it, mainly because I don't remember anything about it. I can make guesses about the possible devlopmental/emotional effects it had on me, but of course don't know for certain how it influenced me as a person!

    Jen - it wasn't until I had my own children that I understood what my mother must have gone through.

    Langley - Yes, it does sound barbaric now, doesn't it? But it was the norm at the time. Things started changing in the 1950's but even asAs late as 1959, there was a report which said "hospitals were miserable places for children, where they were expected to conform to ward routines, not allowed to play; where to lie quietly was the accepted norm, and where, under no circumstances, were the parents allowed to visit outside the declared visiting hours." Thank goodness attitudes have now changed!

  20. Hi,

    Horrid story, but you were an experimental guinea-pig! Thank yourself lucky you weren't a hamster: you might have had a wheel!

    No, seriously: Yee Gods, things were so different back then. Children's wards today have parent suites, those in for specialist treatment. Though must say, some of the old routines of restricted visiting hours wouldn't go amiss. Some days it's tough for docs and or nurses to fulfil every day tasks because visitors are in and out at will, their butts cocked in the way and beds almost impossible to get to. Ha ha, just pointing to the obvious of hubby being in the medical profession. ;)


  21. Francine - 'Getting in the way' of the medical profession was one of the reasons why parents only had limited visiting rights. Reasons: it made it difficult for the staff, disrupted the child's routine and 'upset' the child when they left (thus causing more problems for the medical staff).
    No understanding then of the emotional/psychological effects of 'maternal separation' on a young child.
    Much easier for medical staff when child becomes institutionalised and conforms to the hospital routine without interruption from parents.
    It's now realised that the well-being of the child and its parents are far more important than the needs of medical staff and hospital routines!
    In the 1940's it was, as some commenters have said, barbaric, even criminal. I can guess at some of the psychological damage it did to me, some aspects of which I am aware of. A psychologist would probably have a field-day trying to analyse me!
    I could go on about this at length, but I'll shut up now!

  22. Wow, I can't imagine being separated from my kids for that long with only an occasional postcard to let me know how they were. That is awful!! I don't know how your mom coped. Amazing story Paula!!

  23. You're an amazing woman...I am lucky to read your work. I have an award for you...stop by my website to pick it up:


  24. Kathy - I couldn't imagine being separated from mine when they were that age. I was so aware of what my mother had missed.

    Susan - many thanks for the award :-)

  25. I agree parts of that story were disturbing. Separation, the visitation restrictions and matter of fact postcards. Your mother must have had a very strong will to endure so much

  26. Maybe it's for the best that you don't remember this.


  27. What a horrible experience for both mother and child! I can't imagine having been torn from my mom so young or having been away from my kids when they were little. Yikes.