Winifred's story

Winifred recalls having tetanus at the age of 6 and reads a letter written by her mother to her grandmother describing the little girl’s illness.

“ I was living in Pukehou, Hawkes Bay. It wasn’t a farm now actually but it had been a farm and so there were lots of horses in the area. It was Queen’s Birthday weekend and my sister and I were playing on a tank stand beside the garage. It had been the stables in years before and there was all sorts of bark on the ground around the tank stand. I had jumped off the tank stand and landed on a nail that had been pushed through a board. My brother came rushing up and pulled it out and I remember very vividly his pulling it out. It was very hard to pull out, it had gone a long way in.

My parents took me inside and sat me on the edge of the bath and tried to make it bleed and it wouldn’t bleed, I remember it very vividly. And that was really it. They just put a dressing on and my mother rang the doctor in Waipawa and asked should I have an anti tetanus injection and he said oh no no there is no need but bring her in any time in the next week and I will have a look at it. So she took me in on the Tuesday and I remember this too, he cut a little square out of my heel. Yes, he gave me some local but I lay on his plinth and he cut this little square out and washed all the area, and put the little square back in and sewed it up."

Winifred reads a letter written by her mother to her grandmother describing her illness, dated 26 June 1946.

“It was on Queens Birthday June 3rd, or King’s Birthday, she ran a rough nail ¾ inch into the centre of her heel. She was playing on an old tank stand near the woodshed and fell off it on to the nail with bare feet. Peter pulled it out immediately and we soaked it with hot water and camfosa. It did not bleed at all and began to heal on Wednesday the 5th (that is the following Wednesday) it was giving her pain so we took her to the doctor. He opened it and let out the pus but did not suggest an anti- tetanic injection. On Thursday 6th in the morning, we saw more about the babies dying of tetanus. And got worried. Strangely enough I have always been interested in tetanus and have read anything I can about it. Bernard rang the doctor and suggested an anti-tetanic injection. He said any time within a week would do. Even I knew better than that.

We took her over the same morning, Thursday and had it, the injection. Exactly 24 hours later at lunch on Friday, she complained that her gums were sore and that it ‘pushed out her chin’ when she opened her mouth. During the afternoon it became more marked and we rang a doctor cousin in Auckland. He said, “make haste, stay not”, or words to that effect and we stayed only to put a clean nightie on her. By the time we got there, to the hospital, she was much better and they thought it was a false alarm. But they gave her a few shots of anti—tetanic serum to make sure. By the next morning, Saturday, there was no doubt. Her throat was affected and her neck was stiff. They held a medical conference, about six doctors early in the morning and the fight was on. They poured all the hospital supply of ATS [anti-tetanic serum] in to her and sent out an SOS to Hastings and Napier. It was rushed out by taxi all their supply, and more from Wellington that night, by Service Car. The average dose for a preventative injection is 500 units. She had 230,000 units all together. They put a needle in to her wrist and dripped gallons of glucose and saline in to her veins to feed her. They also gave her continuous injections of penicillin.

At 4pm the doctor rang us and said if we wanted to see her we must go at once because they were expecting the spasms to commence any time. We went straight away and she was as bright as a bee. She had had dozens of injections all day and a needle put in her arm and she was already stiffening. She made no attempt to move and spoke awkwardly but said she was “quite quite happy” and had a nurse all to herself. As a matter of fact she had three. They took 8 hour shifts and hardly took their eyes off her. In addition the Sister was in there most of the day and the night nurse in and out. The doctor told me that the nurses had been wonderful.

That night, at 11 pm the spasms suddenly began. They put her under anaesthetic and kept her under lightly all the time. When the spasms came on they gave her more which made them less violent. She had several in the next few hours and twitched continuously. The brain is like a hair trigger and the slightest stimulus will set off another spasm. If they had left her conscious she would have gone from one in to another and of course had worn herself out in no time.. As it was it was touch and go each time. I was told that when Doctor Butcher the son of the fire brigade man received an urgent call to the Children’s ward, the whole hospital held its breath till he came out again and said all was well.

She went very blue each time. We went over first thing on Sunday morning and she had just had another. They let us go in and see her. She looked awful. Blue and panting with oxygen tubes in her nose and a wooden peg in her mouth to keep her from biting her tongue. She bit it nevertheless very badly and of course was quite unconscious. She was only just under most of the time and could hear sounds faintly. She would twitch immediately. For three or four days they could not wash her or change her bed they just had a drawsheet slipped under her and when she soaked her nightie and singlet they cut it off her and put on a pyjama coat back to front with just one arm through the sleeve. The needle was in the other and it was all splinted with cotton wool and things. She was bad all Sunday. Spasms every two hours and Monday. The doctor told me that if she could last till Wednesday or Thursday we would have reason to hope but he obviously did not think she would. On Tuesday there was improvement. She had a spell of 14 hours between spasms with only slight ones in between. The next day, Wednesday was the same and we began to hope. She had them for about seven days all told but at increasingly longer intervals. The last one was a slight one early on Saturday, exactly a week from the start. She was out of immediate danger on the Sunday, nine days. They let us see her on Sunday and she was quite silly. They said she was suffering from serum sickness and all the other things. For several days she wandered quite a lot and it gradually wore off. By Tuesday she was quite clear and given to tears and we could not understand what she said and she would immediately cry or rather pucker up her face and whimper, she had not the strength to cry.

They started feeding her by mouth as soon as possible to get her mouth clean again. Her tongue has been a problem but is nearly well again now. She is still slightly stiff but is having massage every day and they move her from time to time. Her neck is straightening gradually though not right yet. She still cannot move herself or feed herself and her right arm seems to be very weak still.”

Winifred:
“She gave me that, not long before she died and I was so glad she did. I do remember crying, I thought I was crying, she said I just whimpered but when I was crying, when my parents came to visit me and I wanted to tell them all sorts of things and I couldn’t, I couldn’t talk properly and I remember that, the frustration that you couldn’t talk. And I remember my mother saying don’t worry darling don’t worry and me saying “I want to worry! I want to talk “ I remember being cross with her for telling me not to worry. It was worth worrying about. I don’t know what it was I wanted to tell her, some silly thing, what somebody had said to me I expect.

It was a small hospital and I think therein lay my salvation because they stopped the lift, it was three storeys and they stopped the lift for the duration of my spasming because the lift door made a noise and that triggered a spasm so everybody padded up and down stairs, all the meals and all the nurses wore slippers, everything was as silent as they could make it . Well that couldn’t happen nowadays in a big hospital so I was lucky to be in a small one.”

This story has been edited from a recorded interview with Mrs Winifred IP Stott,(nee Williams) for the Piercing Memories project and is posted on IMAC’s website with her consent. The interviewer was Elaine Ellis-Pegler

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