Although we spent most of our time high up in the ‘gods’ on our frequent visits to the Theatre, there were the odd occasions when the opposite was the case, and we found ourselves in the ‘Royal Box’, where we were treated like royalty. The Star of the show would give us special attention and, seeing this, the other artists in the show would do the same, even tho they didn’t know what was ‘special’ about us lol! I was too young to appreciate all this attention and would happily have done without it, I’m sure my sister, Mavis, felt the same way, as it’s her rather sad story that was the reason for all this special attention.
It’s May 1941 and mum had just given birth to her 5th child - me! Sheffield was on the receiving end of Hitler’s bombers as they tried to obliterate the steel mills. So there was poor mum, on her own with five children, including a new baby, and bombs dropping all around and worrying about the health of my older sister Mavis, who was not developing as a normal, rumbustious five year old should. Many tests and examinations later, would show that Mavis had been born with a heart defect - the blood was not circulating around her heart in the normal way, and therefore not being oxygenated, which resulted in the bluish tinge to Mavis’s skin and lips after the slightest exertion. The specialists had found a hole in her heart and she was destined to spend the rest of her life in a wheel chair.
This was the 1940's and very little was known about Mavis’s condition, everything would be experimental. Effectively, Mavis was a guinea pig, I’m sure that many of today’s successful heart operations were based on these trials. Our whole family life was centred around Mavis’s condition, sometimes, my other sister, Barbara and myself would be sent off to a Children’s home for a short time whilst mum & dad went to London with Mavis to see her specialist, Professor Wain. Significant perhaps, that I can remember his name so easily, after all these years. I enjoyed these periods at the homes, I remember carefree, sunny days, but they turned into traumatic memories for Barbara - being separated from our parents..........
It was hard for Mavis, watching her two younger sisters growing up normally and doing all the things that she wanted to do. She had to go to a ‘Special’ school, and although of perfectly normal intellect, her schooling was frequently interrupted by long bouts of ill health. Mavis and I spent hours together, discussing her condition - she was very interested in all that was happening to her and always had a host of questions for her Heart Specialist. Consequently I became very interested in biology and got to know far more than we were ever taught at school - I was quite proud of the fact that I always came top of the class when it came to biology exams lol! In fact my biology teacher would often ask me questions about Mavis?s condition and progress.
As time went on, Mavis became known as ?The Sheffield Blue Baby? and as such, was a local celeb lol! The Sheffield Telegraph & Star took a particular interest in her, and it was they who arranged for her to meet the Stars who came to the Empire Theatre. Comedians Frank Randle and Al Read took a particular interest in Mavis, as did brothers Albert & Les Ward - comedians and performers who played every instrument imaginable, they were playing the washboard long before Lonnie Donnegan lol! These Stars were also very kind to the rest of the family. It was Frank Randle who arranged for us to have the ?Royal Box? and gave us such special attention whilst he was on stage performing.
When Mavis was 15, her doctors at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, decided to go ahead with a pioneering operation to repair the whole in her heart. A piece of Mavis? own tissue was going to be used, they chose to use the pulse in her left wrist - nobody asked - and so they didn?t know - that Mavis was left handed..... But she got her own back in due course - whenever she had her pulse taken, she?d offer her left wrist and watch with glee as the doctor/nurse searched in vain for any sign of a pulse beat lol!
Poor Mavis - she was left with precious little dignity - everyone seemed to forget that she was an adolescent emerging into adulthood, her hospital bed was forever surrounded by students and junior doctors - of course everyone was interested in this innovative surgery.
What she suffered during those rather rudimentary and experimental procedures doesn?t bear thinking about. Because of her weak heart, the anaesthetist dare not put her fully under, even to operate on her heart. They had to lower her temperature and therefore her heartbeat, to a quite dangerous level, by packing ice around her, and then give her a light anaesthetic....... and this was no keyhole surgery. Mavis was cut from just under her left arm and diagonally across her back to her right side just above the waist.
Today it?s possible to repair a hole in the heart by passing a patch via a catheter through a vein in the groin and onwards up into the heart, where scar tissue will form to hold the patch in place. But for Mavis, there were long and gruelling weeks of treatment, Mum even went to work at Hammersmith Hospital as a Ward Orderly so as to be near at hand. Barbara and I had to go and live with our Great Aunt, who we both feared, Aunty Ena & Uncle Walter had not been blessed with children of their own, and although Uncle Walter was a real sweetie - Aunty Ena was very strict! We had to go to a new school on the other side of Sheffield, which was truly horrible - being new and not having any friends. We hadn?t been there very long before we caught the school child?s plague - nits! It wasn?t our fault, but from Aunty Ena?s rage, you would have thought so! That was an awful episode, boy was I glad to eventually get back to my old school. But there were good bits - picking bilberries on the moors and taking them back for Aunty Ena to turn into the most scrumptious steamed bilberry pudding, served with creamy custard - yum yum - I remember it still!
The homecoming for Mavis was truly spectacular. She was featured in all the papers, Mum had bought her a very pretty pink satin dress to wear on this special occasion - and my thoughts were - how long til I get it lol! There were wonderful parties and we all had a jolly good time.
Mavis had been told that the operation would enhance and prolong her life, but she would never be ?normal? ( yes, that was the word they used!) like other girls - she would never be able to marry and have children - hah!
Once Mavis had been released from that wheelchair - she was off like a rocket - eager to do all the things that had so far been denied her. Mum & Dad went through even more worrying times as Mavis attempted to burn the candle at both ends. Inevitably, she wound up in hospital on several occasions after coughing up blood, fainting and various other worrying symptoms - all due to her hectic life style. Eventually she decided she was going to get a flat of her own and live her life without any family interference - life became very uneasy for all of us. In due course Mavis met the man she had decided to marry ( a most unwise choice, I have to say!) Sadly their first child was born prematurely and did not survive, but Mavis battled on, and despite various miscarriages, she did manage to have 3 healthy children.
Despite, or maybe because of, her health, Mavis had a will of steel and I?m happy to say that on 30th March she will be 69 years old!
I often wish that all those doctors who helped Mavis back to health 54 years ago, could have known just how successful their experimentations were.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY FOR THE 30TH MARCH MAVIS !