Sunday, 11 September 2016

Welcome To Ward III, "The Beauty Shop"

Welcome to Ward III of the Queen Victoria Hospital, in East Grinstead. The men we care for here are young men who found the courage to face death when they went off to war. Now they've been brought here, they must find the courage to live life again.
The Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead.
We're barely one hour away from London, but fortunately, have not suffered in the bombing raids as yet - touch wood. Take a stroll through. When the men are not here, it's fairly average. A typical ward. But when they return, the radio is flicked on and the volume is high. The beer flows - it's kept in a keg on a small table down at the end there, and then someone plays the piano - they always do - the lads like to have a sing-song now and again.
Ward III Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
You won't find a mirror on this ward. The men are only allowed to see their faces when Archie says so. The shock is too great and so the right time is essential. The men have such high spirits and a good sense of humour - they call this Ward the "Beauty Shop" because it's where you come to be "made up." It's no fun sitting in your Spifire one minute engaging the enemy and the next, caught in a ball of flames. Some of these boys have lost limbs, eyebrows, eyelids, lips, their ears are burned away, and some are blind.

When they first arrive, they're lost, and often in shock and when the full extent of their injuries is realised, some of them wish they had died in the fire that brought them here. We have to keep them going, make them see they can carry on. Men like these are usually kept away from the public, but here it's different. Archie won't hear of them being shielded. He wants them to have normal lives after the war ends and for that to happen, people have to get used to seeing them. They have to be accepted. It's the only way.

One man lies in his bed encased in bandages. He's mummified and has slits for his eyes, nose, and mouth. When he wants a smoke, he groans loudly. One of the lads will light a fag and place it in his mouth, then flick the ash for him. That's one of the rules here - you can only smoke if you can flick the ash.

Everyone mucks in and lends a hand. Pints are poured, the music flows and now look. Someone's riding up and down on a bicycle. It's a typical day. Sister can never stop them, as much as she tries. Boys will be boys, and it's allowed as long as they don't go too far. Of course, Archie receives numerous complaints, mainly from the hospital welfare committee raging about the unruly behaviour of the men. But Archie - we all call him Maestro, or Boss - usually manages to butter them up and wriggle his way out.
Plastic Surgeon Archibald McIndoe on Ward III, in white coat sitting on right at the piano
He hand picks his nurses. He chooses the pretty ones mainly because, as he says, it cheers the men up. It's bizarre working here. One minute you're changing a dressing and the next you're being whisked away into town on the arm of an airman because he wants to go for a drink. We have to chaperone them, you see. Well, some of them. They might need help with their drinks or with something else. So often their hands have been badly burned and they've lost fingers or their fingers are stuck together - melded by the heat into wax stumps.

I'm not a nurse. I'm a volunteer. Archie's a family friend and he asked me to help out. He said I'd be an asset to the ward. Well, I don't know about that, but I enjoy visiting the men. It's so awful what happened to them and I've seen some sights. But it's not their fault and we really need to do all we can to help them get well again.

One Polish airman hid beneath his blankets all day today. He wouldn't speak, eat or drink. When I arrived the nurse said that the lady with the newspaper trolley had seen him and said he looked like a monkey. Well, he is badly burned and disfigured, and his skin is dark because of it, but honestly, what a thing to say. It took me over two hours to persuade him to come out. And then we talked, and I wrote a letter home for him. He was so grateful and yet I feel as if I didn't really do very much at all. I can't imagine what it's like to be burned so badly you barely recognise yourself.

Last week was difficult. A man died. Everyone felt it, grief trickling through the ward. It's not something that happens a lot, but it does happen. Archie lost his sparkle and the spring in his step for a couple of days.
One of the men down the end there is being a little overly familiar with a nurse. A lot of flirting goes on here. A couple of men are going out with nurses and there's even talk about marriage.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
I've often wondered why this Ward is so different, and why the men here are allowed to do almost anything they like. There's a distinct lack of order and discipline, and yet Archie is most definitely in charge and they wouldn't dare cross him for anything. He once told us the story of his arrival in England back in the early 1930s. He'd seen beggars on the streets of London selling matchsticks to get by and he'd discovered they were veterans of the Great War. It's shocking really to think that such men are reduced to doing that after risking their lives in defence of their country. Do we not care for our people? Well, that's why Ward III is different. Archie cares what happens to these boys and he has no wish for any one of them to become beggars or destitute. We have to show them they still have a life and we have to teach others the same. There's no shame and they must not be feared or shunned.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Archie goes to meetings in town to speak with the locals about his work. He's already recruited a number of volunteers from among them. Some ladies donate fresh flowers every week while others come in to visit. They speak with the men, write letters and bring them little food parcels. The men need to know they have our support and understanding. They don't require pity. That old saying, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish and feed him for a lifetime," is relevant here. That's what we have to do, we have to show them how to live and give them the confidence to get back out there. They can still be useful, get married, and work, just like us. As Archie says, "What good is a face if the man is not whole?"

Now when the men go off into town swaddled in bandages and with tubed pedicles dangling from their faces like elephant trunks, the locals don't stare. They've become used to the boys and even welcome them. It's just as it ought to be. Beneath the scars, they are the same as any of us. Everyone needs to know this. We shouldn't judge them by how they look. They're nice, charming young men and so witty, clever and brave. Beauty is more than skin deep, don't you know.
Archie furthest right with "his boys."

The Guinea Pig Club was formed in July 1941 on the grass outside of Ward III at the hospital named above. The airmen and pilots who formed the club were all severely burned and that was one of the conditions of membership. They also had to have been treated by plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe. Among the founder members were Richard Hillary, Geoffrey Page and Tom Gleave.

The club exists today, and of the original 649 airmen, only 17 remain.

My novel will be released in November 2016. The Beauty Shop is set in WW2 and addresses themes such as beauty and disfigurement and follows Archie McIndoe, the 'Maestro' and his struggles to care for severely burned airmen, looking beyond their physical injuries as he realised the psychological impact was just as important, if not more so. Step back into 1940's England and re-live the bombings, the air-raids, the dances and the romance while love and tragedy are but a breath away.