A Tale of Two Cities

Best of Times
In 1843 a survey was conducted in London which found that only 26 of the city’s 2,400 hospitalised patients were children.  Yet in the same year, of 51,000 deaths recorded in London, 21,000 were children under the age of ten and one third of London’s children died before their first birthday.  Clearly there was a need for paediatric inpatient care, but children were generally kept at home even when seriously unwell.  In 1848 Dr Charles West published Lectures on the diseases of infancy and childhood which remained an authoritative medical reference for the next fifty years.  A powerful orator and renowned physician, he fundraised the money to establish ten hospital beds dedicated solely to the inpatient care of children, opening in 1852 at 49 Great Ormond St in Bloomsbury.

London teemed with the poverty, inequality and injustice chronicled so potently by Charles Dickens, who was publishing novels such as Bleak House and Hard Times at the same time as Dr West was treating the poor.  Almost all of Great Ormond St Hospital’s patients came from the surrounding slums of Clerkenwell, Holborn and St Pancras.  Charles Dickens was a staunch supporter and benefactor of Great Ormond St Hospital, acknowledging that it was the only public institution dedicated to saving the appalling waste of human life suffered by London’s children.  His public reading of A Christmas Carol at a festival dinner in 1858 raised enough money to purchase the house next door, allowing the hospital to increase it’s capacity to 75 beds.

Since that time, Great Ormond St Hospital (GOSH) has grown exponentially, opening it’s own School of Nursing in 1878 and a Medical School ten years later.  Many pioneering medical researchers and practitioners lived their careers out at GOSH.  JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan, donated the rights of his famous book to the hospital in 1929, claiming Peter Pan had been an inpatient there and “it was he who put me up to the little thing I did for the hospital”.  Princess Mary, the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, completed her nurse training at GOSH, as did Princess Tsahai, daughter of Haille Selassie, after fleeing Ethiopia when Mussolini invaded in 1935.  Princess Mary became the President of GOSH some years later.  Princess Tsahai returned home in hope of using her skills to develop child health services, but died from meningitis at the age of 24.  Britain’s founding child psychiatrist, Mildred Creak became GOSH’s first female medical consultant in 1940.  Many firsts have happened at GOSH since that time, including the UK’s first Paediatric Neurosciences Unit in 1959, the UK’s first Leukaemia Research Unit in 1961, the world’s first heart and lung bypass machine for children in 1962, the world’s first successful bone marrow transplant on a child in 1979 and numerous other pioneering interventions.

Princess Diana became President of the hospital in 1989 until her death in 1997.  I traveled to London for an interview at the GOSH School of Nursing in August 1997.  During my two week visit Diana was killed in Paris.  My interview and pre-admission exams were some time before the funeral.  We were taken on a tour of the hospital which included the hospital chapel where an arrangement of lilies with a message from Prince Charles, William and Harry to staff and patients sat poignantly near the altar.  After being accepted into the year-long Registered Sick Children’s Nurse course at GOSH, I learned some months later that visa entitlements meant I could not undergo the training as planned.  This was devastating at the time, but I likely would have followed a very different career path and perhaps never experienced Timor and Cambodia, which have been so dramatically life changing.

Today GOSH is infamous as a leading world paediatric treatment and research centre.  The GOSH Facebook page is filled with features on sick children, often with rare conditions, receiving world class care and attention.  In mid July when video footage of this sculpture hooked to a crane, flying in the London skies and landing on the roof of a new state-of-the-art facility at the GOSH site, appeared in my news feed, I felt at once heartened – for those able to receive the care they deserve; and saddened – for those who will never experience such care.

GOS swan

Today a beautiful swan sculpture created by artist Chris Brammall ‘flew’ into place on top of the Premier Inn Clinical Building, part of the Mittal Children’s Medical Centre at GOSH. The 4m long steel sculpture is the first artwork to be installed in the building and will be visible from patient bedrooms when the building opens next year. The sculpture is dedicated to children and families affected by Syndromes Without a Name, commonly referred to as SWAN, and echoes the building’s natural world design features.

In particular, I thought of Samantha’s almost 3yo son in Phnom Penh.  He probably has a known genetic syndrome, but because there is no way of diagnosing him in Cambodia, it remains unknown, putting him into the same classification as a child affected by SWAN.  Rather than receiving state-of-the-art care, at times he has been turned away from receiving any care at all, in an underfunded and resource-starved system which allows discrimination and neglect, relying on the individual standards of health professionals who receive varying degrees of training and supervision.  Deprived of the most fundamental resources needed to provide a basic level of care, people’s energy is spent resolving a multitude of complex structural problems.  In my own experience, when in a single day at work there is no running water, no way to fix sewerage leaking out of the ground near your patients, and no oxygen supply for patients with respiratory disease, your ability to care for patients is reduced and you develop a level of powerlessness.  Contending with a barrage of such problems on a daily basis can erode your spirit, although it offers the opportunity to develop keen problem solving skills which are redundant in the comfort of first world health care settings.

This week’s news from Cambodia included a broken hearted email from a Khmer doctor involved in an advocacy capacity with HIV+ children who I know and have worked with.  The adults caring for these children are not medically trained and have naturally put their trust in the medical staff dealing with their HIV treatment.  The children are being taught to be independent in their daily medications and so it took some time for an adult to notice that the tablets in one of the children’s bottles were broken roughly into halves, quarters and crumbs!  This caused the carer to look closely at the other children’s medications, finding another child has been taking already-expired tablets.  Thankfully, with a doctor advocating for them, the carers are empowered to speak with the treating doctors and ask for rectification.  But how many children in impoverished places are not in the care of literate adults who would notice a problem in the first place, let alone feel confident to question or challenge health professionals who sit in positions of power at clinics and hospitals?  It would be easy to think that this somehow reflects the character of Cambodian health professionals but I disagree.  Over the years I have worked with hundreds of nurses and doctors and it is only the well resourced standardisation of our system with it’s protections and quality processes, which shields any of us from the same flaws which exist in any group of individuals.

Had Charles West and Charles Dickens been alive in today’s globalised society, the unequal status quo of the world’s children would have been unacceptable to them.  The poorest of the world’s poor may no longer be London-based, but they are still afflicted by appalling suffering and loss of life, which ultimately hurts us all.  In this age of cutting edge innovation and prosperity for those of us living in the best of times, those experiencing the worst of times are no less deserving.  Former US President Ronald Reagan advocated for international aid as a way of promoting economic growth and democracy.  The aid America provided to Germany and Japan after World War II stands as an excellent example of two potentially unstable nations becoming important allies and trading partners, whose prosperity has in turn benefited the rest of the world.  International growth and development, particularly the small investments needed to make significant change in the poor world, serves us all.

My observations of local life in Cambodia have regularly evoked comparisons with what I know of Dickensian London and it’s disparities between a powerful minority and the vulnerable teeming masses.  The difference today is that the wealthy minority is just as likely to be foreign onlookers of poor nations (in person or via the media), as it is to be that nation’s local elite class.  We – including those who consider ourselves common battlers – are today’s “high society”, purely thanks to the systems that work in our favour to ensure we  have shelter, food, education, opportunity and services.

Doctor Charles West, in his everyday approach to other people, showed us how we can capitalise on our privilege for the benefit of everyone.  Small sacrifices at both national and individual levels can make the biggest difference to those in need.  The alternative seems to be, to take on the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge, Dickens’ cold-hearted moneylender who despised the poor and approved of their suffering.  Even Scrooge eventually realised the selfish benefits of generosity and changed his ways.

In commemorating the 200th birthday of Charles West on 9 August 2016, GOSH said:
Today we’re celebrating the bicentenary of our founder Dr Charles West. Dr West was driven to found a specialist children’s hospital in the 1850s after being appalled by the extent of sickness among children of the poor in London. Dr West was loved by the patients he treated – he never prescribed a foul tasting medicine, always ensured his instruments were warm before using them, and had a drawer full of toys in his consulting room that was ‘accidentally’ left open. Happy birthday Dr West!

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