Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Guinea Pigs’ Drinking Club

These are my notes from another BBC iPlayer programme. I have encountered this club one other time since seeing the programme, but never before; I’m certain I would have remembered it. I’m certain you will after reading this, too.  

The Guinea Pigs’ Drinking Club had two requirements for membership:

1. You had to have been a pilot in WWII and to have cheated death and

2. You had to be permanently disfigured.

(I would guess theoretically that you would also need to enjoy drinking, but that’s by the by). This is a club that was founded by the work of a doctor named Archibold McIndoe, a major forerunner in modern reconstructive surgery.

WWII was unique in producing these disfigured men as it was the first time for air to air combat. There was a lot of glamour in being an airman; every 18 and 19 year old in Britain was itching to ‘get in and do something’ and only the Royal Air Force would do. Young men that age never really thought of the danger, supposedly, though only 20 out of 100 would complete their raids without meeting death or experiencing disfiguring burns. 

Jack Toper, the chairman of the Guinea Pigs Drinking Club, was qualified during his 6th raid over Germany when an anti-aircraft gun took out his Wellington bomber. He described the scene where in they’d made it back as far as Holland when the search lights caught them and they were shot down. The pilot had shrapnel in his leg and they crashed. Though they were still in one piece, the navigator panicked when it came time to get out and so Toper pulled him free. In the process he got burned on his hands and face. He said he could see black around his eyes, but it all happened so quickly he didn’t realise what had happened.

What had happened was third degree burns, leaving him with no nose, no eyelids, nor upper lip, lower chin, right cheek or right ear. Before WWII these were fatal wounds and so surgeons had never seen such extensive damage. Toper was 20 years old and was facing life in an institution, blind. A maverick surgeon, Archibold McIndoe (AKA Archie, Maestro, boss or God), became not just surgeon but councillor and support worker to the men he repaired on the operating table. He understood that their injuries were in no way restricted to the physical aspect and that the long recuperative period would need more than stitches.

Blindness is the inevitable result of no eyelids, resulting from the thickening of the corneal layer on an unprotected eye. Thus, skin grafts were required from the soft underarm to form new eyelids.  Over time, McIndoe became an expert at eyelid grafts, but the early challenges were formidable. Keeping the skin alive for skin grafts was the first problem and so he developed the tube pedicle that kept one end of a skin flap attached to the arm’s blood supply and attached it to the nose, like an elephant’s trunk.
  Eventually, McIndoe developed his own tools, such as scissors and forceps to aid in the pioneering work he did.  

The programme talked about McIndoe’s presence, his charisma. Originally from New Zealand, he came to Britain at the age of 30 and accidentally entered the field of plastic surgery. Up until then he’d intended to do abdominal surgery but somehow his appointment fell through and he found himself ‘on his uppers’. He turned for help to a distant relative, Hal Gillies, known as the father of plastic surgery, and wound up joining that specialty instead. In East Grinstead in 1942, the Guinea Pig club came together through McIndoe’s plan to keep his patients together, to keep them in contact with one another to provide support and camaraderie.

Paul Hart, the last of the original members, who passed away at the end of 2006 so far as I can tell, was on a training exercise in the winter of 1940. They shouldn’t have been flying, the fog was like cotton wool and they hit a mountainside. The cockpit was a mass of flames and they couldn’t at first get out. They banged the release again and were able to walk out of the plane. His face was severely burned.

Severe burns can also be caused by extreme cold. Alan Morgan was already a skilled tool maker when he joined the RAF. It was his 21st birthday and he was due back from his bombing raid for a party being given by his girlfriend. He’d just dropped the bombs when the door was blown open. He managed to close and lock the door but then blacked out. His hand was on the airframe at -45 degrees for the 10 minutes it took to get back down from 23,000 feet. His burns were due to frostbite. His hands were kept warm in saline gloves, apparently what is now opposite of the recommended treatment. He developed gangrene with the tips of his fingers turning black and he lost his greatest assets. McIndoe wasn’t able to save Morgan’s fingers but he managed to reshape some stumps for him; these stumps allowed Morgan to keep his dignity. Without them he would have had no personal freedom and would have required aid to do the simplest of tasks.

McIndoe took him to East Grinstead where he joined the party – literally. The atmosphere was not sober or grim. There was a barrel of beer kept in Ward 3 – part of the standard treatment – with card games and music, noise and fun. Patients could go out as long as they got back by 3 am. They didn’t actually get drunk, it was reported, but some of these men were in hospital for as long as four years and McIndoe was determined they would not become institutionalised. They didn’t wear uniforms or hospital gowns and they sang:

We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
Per ardua ad astra
We’d rather drink than fight
McIndoe involved his patients in their treatment as other surgeons of the day did not. This way they felt more in control of their lives. He encouraged them to watch his surgeries on their friends to help their confidence. He believed that the more they understood about what would happen to them, the less their own pain would be. Some of these men would undergo 20 or 30 operations for their reconstruction and he felt that it was important that they be with others who were similarly afflicted. He understood that the real legacy of these severe burns was psychological and so he felt it was important to keep them together. At one time he had around 650 patients at East Grinstead. He knew that if they were sent home they would never go out, but all clubbed together it was not a problem, particularly as McIndoe had met with and talked to the local inhabitants of the village so that they were able to look at the patients with their pedicles and their fingerless hands and interact as normally as possible. He reminded villagers that these men were war heroes, young people who ‘gave their face for your freedom’. At the same time, McIndoe talked with his burn patients, explaining “Don’t forget, if you meet someone and they seem embarrassed at seeing you, that embarrassment comes from you. Talk to them and put them at ease.”

At Marchwood Park, overlooking South Hampton docks, was situated a rehabilitation unit where these men we sent. Apparently the site was owned by the British Power Boat Company, and boat building continued along side the rehab unit. As well as rest and recuperation, the men were taught new skills with which to support themselves and many helped build boats. They also had an active social life, though it was noted that pedicles and partying didn’t go well together; it was easy to forget the tube attached to ones arm and to tear the skin trying to catch a dropped cup, for example.

McIndoe also sought treatments that were less painful. Initially, the treatment of burns involved the use of a form of tannic acid, also used in the treatment of leather, because it kept in body fluids and excluded bacteria. The frequent changes of dressing that were required were excruciating, however. McIndoe noted that pilots who had crashed in the sea healed better and he instituted salt water baths twice a day to help slough off dead skin.

McIndoe also fought the military and the politicians on behalf of his patients, getting the extension of rank and pay for the wounded and lengthening the period of time the airmen were retained in the Service before being invalided out. He later argued that their full treatment should take place whilst still part of the Service and he got the disability pension for disfigurements increased to 100%.

A number of these men wound up marrying their nurses. Some wives or girlfriends who had known them before their injuries weren’t up to the challenges they had to face. Ella Morgan took a very practical approach to Alan’s injuries, saying that he was the same to her. Though he couldn’t work and couldn’t earn money, she could and so it didn’t matter. However, Alan exercised his new hands and soon was skilled enough to return to flying duties. Out of the service, he struggled to find a job, but eventually landed one by keeping his hands in his pockets. He stayed at that job for 11 years before moving on to another.

McIndoe used all his influence to help his Guinea Pigs find employment. No contact was immune. Paul Hart met his wife at work. Though his face was damaged she said that she found the real person beneath. How a person looks eventually fades in your vision. They “quietly and carefully drifted into marriage” because “they belonged together.”

One of the men was quoted as saying, “Of course you start out asking why the hell did this happen to me? But over time you stop being angry. I have no regret. I would choose again to be a member of the Guinea Pigs Club.”

The club met annually for 66 years to have a check up and a dinner together in East Grinstead. In 2007 they held their last official re-union as the age range of the last remaining 97 members was 82 to 102 years and only 57 still lived in the UK. They still meet up here and there, particularly in East Grinstead where McIndoe is still honoured, 50 years after his death in 1960 at 59 years of age.

If you are interested in further reading, see these links, or use Google to find more. /sgt%20741779%20john%20stuart%20jones.html,,1945108,00.html


James said...

A very inspiring story, thank you.

Patricia said...

Wonderful - thank you!

Shelley said...

James - As always, pleased to have you around.

Patricia -- From Budapest! I'm really honoured! You're in a place I want to see one day.