Due to an eye problem that I have endured since the age of about twelve, I have over the years spent hundreds of hours at outpatient clinics. l was for many years a regular visitor to the old Eye Infirmary in Exeter - now the Hotel Barcelona.
As with Doctor's Surgeries, timed appointments were unheard of and so all outpatients arrived as early as possible on their appointed day. It seemed that whatever time you got there, the place was always full. I used to wonder - and still do - what time the patients from rural areas had left home. Not many had cars in those days, but they still seemed to get there before us `townies' - perhaps they left home the night before!
Once you passed through the door, any feelings of dignity and individuality you may have had quickly disappeared. There was a feeling of the cattle market about it - and you were one of the cattle! You started in a queue (of course) and eventually reached a receptionist. A pause whilst she (never a `he') rummaged through a mountain of packets of notes trying to find yours. (Unbelievably, when I went to see the hospital optician earlier this year - more than 50 years on, he still had my original notes in a file that had grown to very large proportions).
Once this had been accomplished, the notes were put at the bottom of what always seemed a very large pile and you were sent to find a seat. From time to time you were moved on to another room - or more likely a corridor - until, some hours later, you reached a large room which contained your consultant. From the point of view of privacy however, it unfortunately also contained a lot of fellow patients who were seated all around the perimeter of the room.
The Consultant himself - or God, because that is how he seemed - was seated at one end behind a large sloping desk and looked for all the world like a Victorian schoolteacher. When the nearest patient was summoned to a seat alongside God, everyone else moved along a place and then settled down to learn the details of this latest patient's problems. This was not done through rudeness or lack of consideration, but because you could not help it - no attempt was made by God to conduct the appointment sotto voce. You would have had to be blind (which I suppose some were) or deaf not to learn all the details.
If you were lucky, you got out about dinner time.
If not, you wished you had brought some sandwiches - or had not yet
eaten all the ones that you had brought - as you continued to wait
whilst God went for his dinner.
Despite the note of cynicism above, I have to say that the actual care and treatment given me over the years has been absolutely fantastic.
In my early twenties, I had a major operation on my left eye that resulted in me having to lie on my back for three weeks, without moving my head and with both eyes covered by thick wadding - l would probably be in and out in a single day in these advanced times. To make sure my head did not move, thick pillows were placed vertically on either side of my head. During these three weeks, having nothing else to distract me, I saw much of life. Or rather I did not `see' anything, but heard much of life.
The Ward Sister was a fearsome lady - not unusual at that time - who ruled the Ward with a rod of iron. Late each afternoon she moved from bed to bed and asked a single, simple, terrifying question: "Yes, or No?" New patients - if they had not been forewarned by the person in the next bed - fell into a trap. Firstly, they asked for clarification. After discovering that they were being asked whether or not their bowels had moved that day, they fell into the second trap of answering honestly. This was OK if the answer was `Yes' but could be fatal - almost literally - if the answer was `No'. Such a reply would be followed by the administration of a laxative of awesome power that almost transported you into the next world there and then! Rarely did patients answer `No' more than once.
Bowel movements seemed to be an obsession with many patients - I imagine that that is one thing that has not changed over the years. In the bed opposite me was an elderly man who came from Tiverton, where he had worked as a gardener at Knightshayes when it was still the family home of the Amery family. He had one of the broadest Devonshire accents that I have ever heard. By contrast, a somewhat upper class chap was admitted to the next bed. He explained to all and sundry that he was an officer in the RAF, and that if his case had not been an emergency, he would have been in a far superior hospital somewhere very much to the north of Devon! He was totally obsessed by his bowels and would tell any member of the medical staff who passed - from the student nurse to the consultant - that he was greatly troubled by constipation. This eventually became too much for the old chap from Tiverton who, in his very loud voice, implored a doctor to "stick a bloody ferret in - that'll sort `im out"!
One patient who I did actually see before I had the operation, gave regular demonstrations of an art that I think must have been rare then, and has probably died out by now. He clearly had a lot of trouble with his chest and throat (as well as - presumably - his eyes), because he had brought into the Ward with him a magnificent spittoon that resembled a silver beer tankard with a hinged cover. When his throat needed clearing, he seized the receptacle, opened the cover with a downward pressure of his thumb and let fly at high speed and with unerring accuracy.!
John Moore was born in Exeter in 1941. This extract from his memoirs, recounts his time as a patient at the West of England Eye Hospital in the 1950s and 60s.
The West of England Eye Infirmary, now the Hotel Barcelona.
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