Good Reading : May 2015
walk up the street and know that they wouldn’t be laughed or stared at or have kids throw stones at them. It was an extraordinary thing he did for those guys. Not just the surgery, but believing that while he could repair their faces, it took something more to repair their spirit.’ Liz grew up too young to understand that the terr ifying faces in the street with war ped noses and missing eyes were in fact former dashing young heroes of war. She’s had flashbacks to those faces all her life. But accompanying the terror was a growing cur iosity: what is life like for those men still alive? What was the exper ience of the nurses who treated them? In Love and War: Nursing heroes is a product of years of research and a five-month stay in East Grinstead, where she went in search of the remaining Guinea Pigs and the nurses who had so painstakingly built up their lost confidence. Ward III was the wing of Queen Victor ia Hospital presided over by Archibald McIndoe (known as ‘Archie’ to the Guinea Pigs), where the injured flyers recuperated after their operations. Between 30 and 50 procedures were needed for each man to repair his face and hands. Every operation was an experiment – hence the darkly humorous name of the club – and no-one was as ambitious in their facial-reconstruction techniques as McIndoe. The best alter native before McIndoe’s innovations was a cold copper mask, moulded to the patient’s face as a cover-up rather than a treatment. In contrast to the stark hush of the rest of the hospital, Ward III was buzzing with music, flowing with beer, and rife with unashamed canoodling. Liz rattles off a list of tasks that the frantic nurses were expected to complete in a day – the agonising changing of burn dressings, helping the men into saline baths, feeding them, reading to them, ster ilising equipment and washing them. ‘All those normal nursing tasks, plus they were working in this highly sexualised atmosphere – lots of joking and teasing and high spirits. It was so unconventional. Nurses were trying to get professional status for their work. Part of that was keeping distance from your patients. But McIndoe dissolved all those boundar ies. He was very happy for nurses and patients to get together. That’s what set up the difficult situation for the nurses.’ Liz says that if she had met McIndoe, who died in 1960, she would have asked if he ever considered what it was like for those nurses who worked so tirelessly to repair these men psychologically as well as physically, while dodging the persistent advances and flirtatious pranks played by their patients. Too often tellings of the Guinea Pig Club story gloss over the essential contribution the nurses made to the recovery of these men, but Liz is deter mined to rectify this oversight with her book. Fittingly, she dedicated her book to ‘the women who nursed, loved, marr ied and danced with the Guinea Pigs’. But what effect did completing this years-long project have on Liz? There’s a smile in her voice when she answers. The nightmares have gone. In Love and War: Nursing heroes by Liz Byrski is published by Fremantle Press, rrp $27.99. GOOD READING MAY 2015 57 UP CLOSE 2 The men bonded as a group, and formed The Guinea Pig Clu b The Guinea Pigs that Flew Many of these men survived. But they returned home mutilated & unrecognisable.