We were housed in a single storey prefabricated unit, some distance from the main Langdon Down Victorian building. A fence in front – almost like a picket fence in American hometown movies – with a short straight path leading up to the main entrance.
I don’t recall how I landed as a nursing auxiliary at Normansfield Hospital – it must have been advertised as a permanent position in the Richmond and Twickenham Times. Even though I was turning 17 with a confirmed place to study at Bristol University, I had always filled school holiday time with paid work. I could falsely recall what initially drew me to Normansfield, but in truth I don’t remember. It was close to our family home, so in many ways seemed familiar.
There was no training as an auxiliary, the principal need being for people willing to pitch in with intensive back-up. I was immediately entrusted with supporting the staff nurses with routine care work: making beds, dealing with bed pans, tidying the ward, bringing the kids their meals and engaging in play. Everything was instinctive, with any structure dictated mainly by shift work patterns.
It was certainly a hospital – a bright, open ward with evenly spaced beds, then a separate and somewhat neglected carpeted play area. It’s strange that I don’t recall any girls – only boys, maybe 20 infants to young men. My interests at that time were in science and medicine, yet what struck me most about Normansfield was that none of kids were acutely sick – yet here they were in a hospital. Some were highly medicated because of diagnoses I wouldn’t have understood then. All of them were what was then was called ‘mentally handicapped’.
A couple of boys had what I now know to be severe autism and bipolar disorder with epilepsy. Both spent most days in their pyjamas, with one being confined to a cot. The other was hyperactive with borderline violent behaviour. Some of the photos I have from that time were torn in half because he knew I’d taken them of other children and was intensely jealous. I sellotaped them back together anyway and kept them.
Another teenager was one of the few who had a regular parent visit. The spitting image of his dad, he was profoundly disabled yet charming, entertaining and handsome. I recall the painful embarrassment on his father’s face whenever he was on the ward – powerless to help, yet with so much love and pride in his son.
My most rewarding time was with two or three adolescent boys with Down’s syndrome. They were all what the staff referred to as ‘high grade mongols’ – a brutal term in today’s language, but in practice active, curious and demanding young lads. Bonded by an intense loyalty, they were also funny and affectionate to everyone around them. One of the boys was my absolute favourite, and seeing his gentle face in photos now brings back my overwhelming instinct to take care of him and be his friend.
The hospital had a hydrotherapy pool with hoists which were probably quite advanced by 1977 standards. Because I had a lifesaving qualification, I was allowed to take the three boys swimming – even though my abilities would have been of little relevance to youngsters with disabilities. I recall once emerging from the pool to count two of three swimmers, but with the third swimmer missing. After a moment of blind panic, I spotted a figure at the bottom of the deep end. When I dived in to haul him out, I realised he’d been happily sitting and banging a dessert spoon on the floor of the pool. Clearly I’d underestimated his impressive lung capacity!
My only regret about my time at Normansfield was misleading them about my intentions. I should have told them that I couldn’t be permanent – because I now know how important consistency was to those children. At the end of my first university year and more than a year after I’d left, I went back to visit the children and staff. As I opened the gate and stepped onto the path, I heard them shout my name from the front door, then saw one boy running out in his pyjamas to fly into my open arms. I do wonder what my short tenure there brought to them, but it was truly heart-warming that at least one child had remembered me.