- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Kitty Calcutt
- Location of story:
- British Mobile Neuro-Surgical Unit. Number 3
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 July 2003
That was our destination and stood for British Mobile Neuro-Surgical Unit. Number 3 Neurosurgical Unit had been in action for some time and had been at Oxford Hospital where I started.
The train was the same as all the others, but stopped when we reached the Bramaputra River where we transferred to a steamer. This was crowded with local people and only a few English or army who were travelling east. The reason was that all available flying space was full of troops or goods for the regiments. There were no bridges over the river. It is huge — so wide that if the boat was near the East side, going south, the West side was not visible. I can’t remember how long we were on the boat. I think about 2 hours going South, but that was with the current not against it. The land was very flat only about 4 feet above the river level so no wonder it floods so frequently. There were small settlements at intervals. We saw jute crops growing.
We arrived at the station and it was getting dark but there were no lights in the train carriages as they had all been ‘nicked’. We had to rely on any torch we happened to have.
We were met at Camilla Station by 2 jeeps with local drivers and taken with our tin trunks and bedrolls to our new home. This consisted of the bungalow that had been requisitioned from the chief of railway for the area and made the centre of our patch. Another small building was our dining room. There was also our own accommodation, which was built with a scaffolding of bamboo, with mats of split and plaited bamboo tied to the posts to make walls. The floor was made the same way and made squeaking noises when walked on. The floor was about 2 foot off the field floor to stop live visitors such as snakes getting up the 2 steps.
We had camp beds and full-length mosquito nets (very important). There was one electric bulb so that was luxury. Rats ran around after dark but, although they played with anything left out, I don’t remember anyone getting bitten. There was a small washroom at the back. These small rooms were built in pairs which was nice for company.
There were 3 square tanks of water in our area, all of which had multiple uses. One was used for swimming & washing bodies and clothes, cars & animals. It also waited for scraps of thrown food from the hospital kitchen. Another was a little better and I think was mostly used to wash food and veg. The third had turtles occupying it, though they were not always on show, and it was nice to sit by. Vultures sat on the top of the hospital cookhouse. There was never anything left over as all that had to be thrown away was always salvaged by the birds before it hit the water.
The British staff consisted of one major in charge, 2 or 3 surgeons , a senior sister and a moveable number of QAs, mostly from the same Oxford neurosurgical hospital. Also, I had known 2 of them from Bart’s. We had our domestic staff of cooks, beasties, water carriers and cleaners who worked for us by bringing bath water for our canvas baths and cleaned rooms and did laundry, one between 2 of us. They attempted to keep us on the straight and narrow. They were very possessive and felt very responsible for us.
Patients came straight as possible to us after injury, mostly by air. The officers were accommodated on the veranda of the original bungalow and two of the bedrooms. Other ranks had a spacious permanent building. Non-English other ranks were in a newly built long ward. They were African as well as Indian which we found tricky as they didn’t always get on with each other.
There were sweepers on all the wards to clean the floor and bedpans. Beasties helped with the food. Again the situation was tricky as religious beliefs meant that only certain people were able to help feed others. There were a lot of differences, including the diets. We had to keep 6 spoons locked in a drawer in the office and hand them out and count them back if we had a number of people that couldn’t feed themselves.
All our patients had head injuries. Some could talk and some couldn’t. Some needed operations, so the rest of the bungalow was the theatre and recovery rooms. Head operations mean first shaving heads. This was a very delicate operation because the cut of the hair seemed to be closely tied to religion. Ghurkhas had to have a small piece of long hair left as they believed they were lifted up to heaven by it when they died. Sikhs were not allowed to have any hair cut at all without permission from their religious leaders. The English didn’t get a choice.
Our one and only fridge (running on batteries) was only provided because we had the only supply of penicillin, which was very new and had to be kept cold. Nothing else was allowed in this valuable piece of equipment.
Horrors! One day it failed!
We sent for R.E.M.E. to mend it. They came and said they would have to take it away so they gutted it. They never returned it and from then on we had a supply of lumps of ice which came from that being supplied to photographic people at HQ. It was delivered to us from Calcutta by air daily. Why all this happened was never explained.
Two other units were attached to us, one for eye injuries and the other for burns. They were loosely attached for accommodation, but had their own staff specialists.
The burns unit had a really bad type of burn which began to show up rather frequently. It occurred when oil of whatever kind was labled Taille. My spelling may not be correct, but they were all labled at HQ and were all the same. The staff at HQ being non-English just picked up the first can they found. Now this oil was used for many things, spraying walls against mosquitoes, filling cars, stopping flies in latrines and it was a gamble which kind you got. Sometimes the wrong one was put into the latrines which was when it used to cause an explosion if a cigarette was dropped in it.
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