Judy Stokes found herself scrubbing up alongside the pioneers of plastic surgery. Hampshire received thousands of soldiers burned by the fires of war. VAD nurses treated skin grafts and healed broken hearts. Nurses like Judy reassured the country that loyal compassion could heal the scars of war.
Where did you work?
” Park Prewett Hospital at Basingstoke, which came under the ruling of Sir Harold Gillies, who was pioneering plastic and jaw surgery. This was absolutely fascinating work.
How did you prepare for the work you had to do ?
“Before we ever went to work on the wards, we had to go through what we politely called, the Chamber of Horrors. Photographs of the worst cases to note our reaction. Obviously no adverse reaction could be shown. They had enough to cope with. It sounds strange to say, but after a while you didn’t see their faces. You only saw their personalities. When families came to visit, we were sometimes shown photographs of what they had looked like. And I don’t know whether a man in that situation is given something extra, but their spirit was fantastic.
Sometimes it was just a skin graft. Skin would be taken from one area and had to be sewn on. I understand today that it can be stuck but in our day it had to be sewn. Various other things: lost eyelids. Skin was taken from behind the ear, with just a fringe of hair for eyelashes and attached. Oh, Sir Harold was really very clever.”
What sort of work did you do and how did it help patients?
” We really were privileged. We just took it in our stride, being the kids we were. Our main job was beds, bathing, meals, assisting when doing dressings. We would hold things, fetch things and make ourselves generally useful. All the time we were observing. We would reach a point where we could do small things ourselves. Take stitches out for instance. It was a learning process all the time.
Yes, I feel that we played a large part, an important part in their mental recuperation. Treating them just as one would any other man. And hopefully it’s had something to do with moulding my own character. Maybe I’m more compassionate. Hopefully I’m more understanding of people’s problems.
What happened next?
“Unfortunately my older sister became very ill. My mother found it difficult looking after her single-handed. So I gave up nursing on what I thought would be a temporary basis. Very much against my mother’s wishes. She never wanted me to give up. She said, ‘you might think you’re going back to it; I bet you don’t.’ She was right, I didn’t. I got married instead.”
The word ‘plastic’ in ‘plastic surgery’ comes from the Greek word ‘plastikos’, which means to mould or give form to. Written evidence suggests that the ancient Egyptians had medical treatment for facial injuries 4,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that it began to develop more rapidly. It was the First and Second World Wars in particular that led to better techniques, as surgeons had to treat so many serious facial and head injuries.
Members of the Joint War Organisation were carefully chosen for different positions, as they had to be able to cope with difficult situations. Hospital welfare workers, who often had to help service men come to terms with their injuries, were picked by a special panel to make sure they had an understanding nature and could deal with uncomfortable situations in a positive manner. Find out more about their training.
The relatives of service men wounded in the war also had to come to terms with the horrific injuries their loved ones might have received, as this letter from a soldier to his wife reveals:
“Dear Wife, I have some good news…I shall soon be home. Now I have some bad news for you but you mustn’t mind because I don’t. Tomorrow I am going to have my hands amputated. Thank God it isn’t my eyes for I am longing to see you again.”