Some of Dr Abby Waterman’s stories are funny and some sad. Listen to an episode from her childhood that made her want to be a doctor when she grew up
Chapter 2 Violet has Polio pp 29-30
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‘Woman in a White Coat Chapter 2 pp 29-30
We all caught measles, chicken pox and whooping cough. The only immunisation we had was against smallpox – it left an ugly scar on your upper arm.
There was an outbreak of Infantile Paralysis (Polio) every summer and in all the schools there were children with leg braces to support limbs damaged by the disease. It wasn’t until 1955 that Dr Salk’s anti-polio vaccine became available.
It’s often difficult for patients to tell who’s who in hospital or to tell the difference between a young -looking house physician and a mature medical student.
When I started on the wards as a clinical medical student, I had already qualified as a dental surgeon and had a bit more gravitas than my friends. I always introduced myself quickly as being a student.
This excerpt from my memoir ‘Woman in a White Coat’ describes my first day on the wards.
Listen to me reading this chapter or read it for yourself
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Chapter 14 Mrs Roberts pp 191-195
We stood outside the Bristow female medical ward, stethoscopes hanging nonchalantly out of our pockets, about to start our clinical attachments to the medical, surgical and obstetric firms.
Through the leaded windows in the double doors, we could see Sister’s desk, and the nurses in their blue and white striped dresses busying themselves about the patients. We hesitated, uncertain whether to go in or wait for our senior registrar.
Dr Evans, a tall red-haired man, strode up.
‘Well, what are you all standing about for, like a load of twits? You’ve been taught how to take a medical history and carry out a full physical examination. Get inside and collect your notes. We’ll meet in Sister’s office in three quarters of an hour.’
He handed each of us a buff-coloured folder. My patient was Mrs Mary Roberts.
Sister looked up.
‘One of my nurses will take you to your patients. I don’t want you students making a nuisance of yourselves. No coming in before eight in the morning, lunchtimes or during patients’ visiting hours.’
A nurse led me to a side room and deposited me by the bedside of the most enormous woman I had ever seen.
‘Our Mary’s quite a character. You may need some help when you come to examine her,’ she told me.
‘Good morning, Mrs Roberts,’ I said. ‘I’m your new student, Abby Waterman.’
‘Don’t be nervous, girl. I won’t bite you,’ Mrs Roberts wheezed. ‘Call me Mary. No-one calls me Mrs Roberts here.’
I pulled up a chair, sat down by her bed, and looked through the thick sheaf of notes. She’d been in and out of hospital many times.
The first two fingers of Mary’s podgy right hand were stained brown.
‘You may well look, dearie. They say it’s because of the ciggies that I’m like this.’
She coughed wetly, and spat into the sputum cup by her bed.
‘I’ve given them up loads of times, but they settle my nerves, they do.’
I wrote out a summary of Mary’s long medical history, and drew the curtains ready to examine her. The male students had to get a nurse to chaperone them if their patient was in a side room. Being a woman, that didn’t apply to me.
With a lot of struggling on my part, and heavy breathing on hers, I managed to wrestle her nightdress off. I stared with horror at her enormous breasts. The apex of the heart is under the left breast, but each breast looked as if it weighed several pounds. How on earth would I get a stethoscope underneath? When we were shown how to listen to the heart, we’d had a slim, elderly man to practise on.
Mary smiled at me.
‘They usually get a nurse to help, dear.’
I hurried out, but all the nurses looked busy. Finally, I saw a nurse with a red belt, a staff nurse.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘Just give me five minutes to finish up, and I’ll send someone over.’
I told Mary to cover herself, and meanwhile looked at her swollen hands and feet. When I pressed the flesh of her ankles, my fingers left a dent which didn’t fill again for some time. She was having trouble catching her breath and her neck veins were engorged.
‘Superficial examination suggests the diagnosis of right-sided heart failure,’ I wrote.
A junior nurse bustled in, her starched apron crackling against her dress.
‘I’ve been sent over to give you a hand.’
She tried not to grin as she lifted a huge left breast with both hands, while I struggled to get the bell of my stethoscope underneath. The skin was red and sore from being constantly warm and damp. There was a strong smell of caked talcum powder.
By the time I’d completed my examination of Mary’s cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems, I was exhausted. The notes said she weighed seventeen stone, but it felt as if she weighed a ton.
‘I don’t really get on with the stuff they’re giving me,’ she said. ‘The heart pills make me feel sick, and I have to have a wee every few minutes because of the water tablets. But you should have seen me when I came in. More like a barrage balloon, I was.’
A deep rumbling laugh turned into a coughing fit. When she’d got her breath back, she said:
‘What wouldn’t I give for a tub of jellied eels? The hospital food is all mush.’
Tubby Isaacs Jellied Eel stall stood at the corner of Goulston Street and Aldgate. The red-faced, cheerful stallholder in his signature straw boater, white coat and black bow tie, used to call after me on my way home from St Margaret’s.
‘Lovely jellied eels, miss. Cockles and mussels, Alive Oh,’ he’d shout, knowing I would make a face. Eels and shellfish are forbidden to Jews.
I felt sick at the thought of those grey slices of eel on his stall. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to eat the disgusting things, even if they weren’t Jewish.
Over the next few weeks, I watched Mary’s vast bulk shrink, as the digoxin and diuretic pills began to work. One day, as I was checking her over, she started to cry.
‘They’re going to put me in the geriatric ward at St Mildred’s,’ she sobbed. ‘They say I can’t manage on my own. I live on the fourth floor, and there’s no lift. I can’t get my breath, even to go as far as the lavatory.’
‘Couldn’t you stay with one of your children?’
‘I haven’t heard from any of my kids in years. None of them’s ever been to see me in hospital. Two of the boys are inside, and I wouldn’t want to live with any of the others, even if they offered, which they wouldn’t.’
On my way home from Aldgate East station that night, I went up to Tubby Isaacs stall. I cringed at the sight of those mounds of cockles and whelks and other seafood I didn’t want to identify. To one side there was an enamel bowl full of clear jelly containing slices of jellied eel.
‘I’ll have a tub of jellied eels,’ I said, breathing through my mouth.
I hid the tub behind my books, away from my mother’s prying eyes, and thought about Mary in a geriatric ward. If she was lucky, it would be clean and cheerful, like the one at St Margaret’s, but that was only for short-term admissions. I’d visited a miserable urine-smelling long-stay ward, when my great aunt had her stroke. It was ghastly.
When I arrived next morning, Mary was dressed and waiting for the ambulance to take her to St Mildred’s. Her eyes were red and swollen. She clutched my hand.
‘I never thought it would come to this.’
‘This should cheer you up a bit,’ I said, and handed her the tub from Tubby Isaacs. Jellied Eels, Established 1919.
A smile lit up her face.
‘You’re a lovely girl, you know,’ she said. ‘You’ll go far, mark my words. You’ve got a heart of gold, you have, and there’s not many of them around.’
I had wanted to learn Classical Greek and read the Greek masters in the original for some time and finally enrolled for a beginners’ class at CityLit starting in September 2016.
But it was not to be. On August 9th 2016 Death Came Knocking at My Door and i had a major heart attack.
When i recovered after having had two coronary stents and an intra-aortic balloon pump inserted and been on a ventilator, there was no way i could attend classes that semester and had to cancel.
I started a week’s intensive course in Classical Greek in the summer of 2017 but the beginners’ class the following September was in the evening – and i hate evening classes.
Finally I started the daytime Classical Greek Level 1 at CityLit this September. Unfortunately I’ve catching up to do – one session missed while we were visiting our daughter Louise in the Basque Country and another with a heavy cold caught out there, but I’ve bought some extra textbooks and hope to make up the missed classes.
Delighted that the Thursday lunchtime concerts at St John’s Smith Square London SW1P 3HA have started again after the August break.
And what a fabulous concert to open with: the Fidelio Trio playing Fauré‘s (1845-1924) Piano Trio in D Minor op 120 – which I feel rather lukewarm about – and Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) Verklärte Nachte Op 4 which was fantastic.
Composed in 1899, the Schoenberg was written as a sextet and arranged beautifully as a trio by Eduard Steuermann in 1932.
This was the first time I’d heard Verklärte Nachte in full. I’d previously only heard excerpts in lectures on Schoenberg and the 2nd Viennese School. I hadn’t realised how many lyrical passages he had written as well as his signature discords.
All three musicians – Darragh Morgan (violin), Adi Tal (cello) and Mary Dulles (piano) were great but i especially liked the cello. Adi Tal’s playing made me almost wish i hadn’t given up playing the cello when i left school.
Listen to my account of learning to play the cello from my memoir Woman in a White Coat Chapter 7 Music Studies Pages 96-98
You can buy a copy of my memoir Woman in a White Coat on Kindle at £2.99 or as a Paperback on Amazon at £9.99
There are so many reasons – other than that I love them very much – why it’s so great when Louise and her family come and stay with us.
I’m always on and off slimming – all too soon I put back most of the weight I lost whilst on a ventilator two years ago after a major heart attack, so I don’t make desserts for just Joshua and me. Having visitors is a good excuse. The latest Waitrose Magazine came out with this recipe for Plum and Almond Cake just in time. Josh doesn’t like almond essence so I use vanilla essence instead.
When Josh and I got married in 1956 I could just about cook omelettes and minestrone. Over the next few years, whilst I was a Medical Student and then a House Officer, I gradually increased my repertoire but really learned to cook a wide variety of dishes at the excellent Good Housekeeping six-week full time course in 1960.
Listen to my account of that experience from my memoir Woman in a White Coat Chapter 14 Starting a Family Pages 247-249 and try the recipe given at the end of this post
Woman in a White Coat Chapter 14 Starting a Family Pages 247-249
By the time I finished my second house job, I was five months pregnant. I was unlikely to find a part-time temporary job in medicine and I couldn’t face the thought of standing all day in a dental practice.
I decided to take a cookery course instead. Only the girls in the lower streams at school did cookery and my mother had always shooed me away, especially during wartime. When we got married I could cook omelettes and minestrone and not much else, though I’d extended my range a bit since then.
‘Food is rationed,’ she’d say. ‘Don’t want you wasting good food. Time enough to learn to cook when you get married.’
My mother was a very plain cook. Her repertoire was limited to chicken soup, boiled chicken, braised beef, fried fish and sardines on toast. On Saturdays, we’d have cholent, potatoes and meat or chicken that had been cooking all night on a gas ring turned on very low before the Sabbath came in.
I saw an advertisement for a six-week full-time course at the Good Housekeeping Cookery School. The courses were originally designed for debutantes who needed to learn how to run a kitchen, though they might only set a foot inside one to give orders to the cook.
Most of the other students were upper crust young women who had hardly ever gone into a kitchen. One 17-year-old had never even peeled a potato. Some of the others had moved to London and got a flat of their own so they had done a bit of cooking but we were all pretty inexperienced. One student was a woman in her early thirties who had been in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) – someone more my age. We paired up and shared chores.
Before the war, the students would have cooked in the morning and learned about housework in the afternoon, though they might never have to do any housework once they were married. They were taught to use the starch-enriched water from soaking the potatoes they cooked in the morning to starch a frilly cap or a shirt; how to use gophering tongs – the tubular bladed instruments that made little tunnels in starched caps – and how to iron men’s shirts. By the time I took the course, it only covered cookery.
The kitchens were in a large basement in Mayfair. There were eight Formica-topped tables for the sixteen of us. The shelves around the walls were stacked with bowls and saucepans of every shape and size and there were drawers and drawers of cooking implements. as well as several gas cookers and hobs. On Mondays, the room smelled of cleaning fluid but the rest of the week we were greeted by the gorgeous smell of the cakes we’d cooked for our tea the day before.
We were taught from scratch – how to boil an egg, how to boil potatoes, how to skin and bone a fish. It was a mixture of traditional English cookery – roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding – and some more exotic dishes like dolmas (stuffed vine leaves), curries and the classic sole dishes Sole Veronique, sole with green grapes and Sole Meniere, sole panfried in butter.
In the mornings, we cooked a main meal for lunch and ate it – meat, fish or a vegetarian dish and two vegetables. In the afternoons we baked cakes, bread, brioches, and pastries. I adored it all, especially the chocolate éclairs. In 1960, no-one seemed to bother about pregnant women putting on too much weight and I ate for two with gusto.
I couldn’t find a suitable sized alphabetised book so I bought a linen covered book and made my own index. I still have it, a few food stains on the cover and the leaves a bit faded, but the recipes as good as ever.
The teachers were all highly experienced cooks and managed their often unruly pupils with ease. At dental and medical school, there had been few women – there was still a 10% quota for us. I thoroughly enjoyed the fun of bonding and giggling and having a great time in an all-female group.
I thrived on being pregnant, though I got a bit more tired than the others. It was a lovely six weeks. I cried when they gave me an embroidered layette at the end of the course.
I was already a qualified Dental Surgeon when i started on the wards as a first year clinical medical student.
My medical school fees were paid by a generous award from the Hilda Martindale Trust (an award given to women who are training or studying for a career in a profession where women are under-represented). I was still living at home and made up my income for books, travel and clothes by working two evenings a week in a school dental clinic.
My first patient was a woman in heart failure called Mrs Roberts.
Listen to my account of that experience from my memoir Woman in a White Coat Chapter 14 At Medical School Pages 191-195
Another visit to the BBC Proms 2018. A wonderful concert in a pleasantly cool Albert Hall. The three fabulous Bach Brandenburg Concertos were interspersed with three modern pieces.
The first modern piece was Maya by the British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage with the brilliant American cellist Maya Beiser – an interesting virtuoso piece, moving and exciting.
After the Brandenburg Concerto No 3 the orchestra played Bach Materia – by Swedish Anders Hillborg with the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuussisto . A fantastic piece – especially the duet between the violin and double bass.
Last modern piece was Hamsa by the American composer Uri Caine playing the piano part himself – for me a sorry parody of the great 5th Brandenburg Concerto which preceded it. Much of the piano part was a cacophony sounding like a cat walking over the keys – banging out tight discords.
I was nine years old when I started to learn to play the piano with the organist of the local church. At the time, 1940-1942, I was evacuated to a hostel for Jewish Children in Dawlish, South Devon.
Listen to my account of that experience from my memoir Woman in a White Coat. You can buy my book on Kindle at £2.99 or search on ISBN 9781979834391 for the paperback version on Amazon at £9.99
Memoir extract from Chapter 5 Pages 68-71 To Dawlish
Matron put up a notice saying she had written to our parents asking if they wanted us to learn to play the piano. I didn’t think my parents would agree to pay for lessons though they were quite cheap, especially as I had just been in trouble for refusing to wash on the Sabbath. Continue reading Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos 1, 3 & 5 at the BBC Proms at the Albert Hall→
Often I’ve felt overwhelmed at the Summer Exhibitions by the crowds and the works massed together higgledy-piggledy, but this year the exhibition is themed and great. It’s absolutely a ‘MUST GO’.
This fabulous exhibition made me feel I ought to get out my paints and pastels and start painting and drawing again. After I retired in 1991 I went to a wide variety of classes including drawing and painting.
Hear about the Art Class at the Mary Ward Centre in Queen Square I attended after I retired in 1991 in this excerpt from my memoir Woman in a White Coat’ – Chapter 26 pp 355-356 and pp 361-363
‘Woman in a White Coat’ is available on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99
Chapter 26 Woman in a White Coat
I enrolled for lots of classes, some at one Further Education college and some at another – painting, drawing, cooking, history of art, Spanish, creative writing, pottery, dressmaking, machine knitting, felt making – everything I hadn’t had time for when I was working. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t had the time, I hadn’t had the inclination. My mind was always so full of work. Even when I was at the theatre, I would find myself thinking about a difficult diagnosis or a hiccup in our research.
Thank you for your comments on the first reading from my memoir Woman in a White Coat.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter #2 about a little black kitten called Rupert
‘Woman in a White Coat’ is available on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99
Reading from Chapter 2 Pages 18-22
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Chapter 2 pp 18-22
We always had a cat. Most people in The Buildings kept a cat, because we all had mice, even on the third floor. I never caught sight of a mouse in our flat, but often there would be a few mouse droppings. Now and again my father baited two or three mouse traps with cheese, but he rarely caught a mouse. They were too wary. They had learned how to steal the cheese without getting trapped.