Personal Views Personal views

Dermatological experience

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 21 July 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:173
  1. Jan Croot (jcroot{at}, pictures editor
  1. BMJ

    It is 1958. I'm lying in bed, in the dark, in a four bed dormitory in an institution. The four of us are plotting in whispers about how we will capture Nurse Sharpe and chain her up and run away. To stop us scratching we are spreadeagled, tied with bandages at the wrists and ankles to the tubular steel of our bed frames. We are all seven years old.

    When my mum first brought me here, they took me off to have a bath and told me that she would be waiting to say goodbye when I'd finished. I looked and looked afterwards but she had gone. They had sent her away on the pretext that emotional partings are not beneficial.

    The particular building I am in is one of several on a large estate. Each building houses children with the same kind of illness, so there is an “asthma house,” a “polio recovery house,” and so forth. We are all in the “skin diseases” house. This idea must be the brainchild of a well meaning postwar medical figure who worked out that if everyone with the same condition is together they won't feel different. It makes us in the skin diseases house look at each other and despair. It makes us realise how uncomfortable and ugly and unlovable we are.

    One girl, who is the colour of rancid butter and has oil oozing from every pore, must indeed be unlovable to her parents, who are very rich, never visit, and have left her in this place since she was three years old. She's now 12.

    Another girl who has a condition which has made her go bald is so bitterly unhappy that she coerces others into a playground game in which they stand still while she throws a ball at their face.

    Sunday is visiting day. It is the only visiting day we are allowed. The rancid butter coloured girl, who has no visiting days of her own on account of her rich parents' inability to love, shares my parents, but it's not the same. After lunch we all squash up to the windows to see our mums and dads arrive and after a few hours of normality we all squash up at the windows to see them leave again. We'll see them again next week but seven days is a long time in a child's world.

    The nurses here don't like us. We can sense it. They never smile and they're pretty tetchy most of the time. The matron is always cross and tells us off a lot. I think, and probably everyone else does, that it is because we are ugly. Scabby children, scratching all the time, are hardly endearing. We probably offend their finer senses.

    In the morning we wake up with a sense of dread. Once we have been untied we get dressed and go to breakfast. Breakfast is a grim meal because afterwards we have our dressings changed. We all file into the dressings room and form three queues. Even though everybody is under 13, the room is quiet except for some tearful whimpers of fear and anticipated pain.

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    A nurse stands at the head of each queue and we are hoisted, one by one on to the dressings bench. There, in full view of the rest of the room, we have the previous night's dressings unceremoniously ripped off. This causes immense pain because in the night, blood, pus, and water from the skin leak out to form a dry crust on the outside of the open weave bandages. A small boy in a gauze bandage balaclava is hoisted on to the bench. We can see the red and yellow crusts on the gauze across his forehead and cheeks. He screams when the nurse rips the balaclava off his head. We all scream too, because it is our turn next.

    I ran away once and locked myself in a lavatory so they wouldn't get me. Eventually they realised where I was and came up and rattled the door to get me out. By then I had managed to get the dressings off myself with a bit of gentle encouragement and a lot of spit.

    In the end I was rescued. Nobody would listen to my parents' complaints so they came in my uncle's car (we were too poor to have our own) and stole me away. The matron wouldn't let me take my Easter eggs from the sweetie cupboard and refused to hand over my clothes and shoes, so my mum simply picked me up and carried me off. I was wearing only knickers and an overcoat. I cried all the way home. I had been in that heartless place for eight weeks.

    I still wonder, though, about the rancid butter coloured girl and her parents.


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