Mary worked as a nurse at Stoke Mandeville from 1953; her late husband, Jimmy, had worked there since 1949. From 1970 they ran the rehabilitation hostel in the hospital called the Halfway House. Mary then became a Ward Sister before retiring in 1992.

An interview with Mary and Eileen Brennan, April 2012

Eileen Brennan, Mary's daughter remembers being a child in the 1970s and never seeing her parents during the summer as they would be working flat out at the games.

When the International Games were on in June and July we simply didn't see Dad for weeks as he used to do the first aid for all the teams; he had this medical room over at the stadium when the games were on and he would deal with anything that happened; he had a doctor he could call on if it was serious.

Extract from the interview where Mary recounts her memories of how she and her husband, Jim, came to work and live at Stoke Mandeville…..

My husband and I were both living in London in 1949 and working at the Whittington Hospital in North London: I was a staff nurse in maternity and Jim was a staff nurse on a medical ward.

It was unusual then for men to be in nursing. During the war Jim had been in the Army in the ambulance service, so afterwards was encouraged to train as a nurse.

In 1949 we were still courting and the idea of working away from London seemed attractive. I think Jim must have seen an advertisement for the job at Stoke Mandeville and there was something in it that was family oriented – it seemed to welcome the idea of both of us working at the hospital. Anyway, he got that job and started in 1949 or 1950; he was working on Ward 2 in recovery and rehabilitation. There weren’t many male nurses at Stoke at the time (plenty of orderlies but not actual nurses) and I think Guttmann wanted more men as nurses because of the nature of the work on the spinal wards, there being so much lifting of patients. For the while I was still back in London and Jimmy came back to London at weekends when I was off-duty. We got married back in London in 1952 and we were given accommodation in Southcourt then in 1953 my daughter was born and we then moved to Stoke Mandeville One of the attractions was the possibility of getting a house with the job; no. 2 bungalow Stoke Mandeville; it was one of the two bungalows that stood either side of the entrance gates.

In 1970 (I think it opened in the late 60’s early 70) I was given a part time sisters post (very unusual in those days) so that I could join Jimmy and help run the new rehabilitation hostel, what became the 'Sir Ludwig Guttmann Hostel'.

This was a sort of half-way house for rehabilitated spinal injury patients where they would learn life skills before moving back out to their families or to start living independently. It was quite a revolutionary thing at the time.

There were patients studying there for open degrees and other qualifications. I remember there was one tetraplegic patient there who was writing a book; and in his room there was this elaborate piece of equipment that allowed him to type using his mouth as he had no movement below his neck. He would blow into a tube and the air pressure would then make a projector shine letters of the alphabet onto the wall in front of him; as he blew harder it moved through all the letters of the alphabet, shining them on the wall in turn; when he arrived at the letter he wanted he would stop blowing and his machine would type that letter. I think this was a machine developed by someone who had connections with the hospital.

The patients had their own furniture in the hostel; including a drinks cabinet. All the sisters used to have a bottle of ‘medicinal’ brandy in the cupboard on their wards; alcohol was quite acceptable within the hospital.

Although the hostel was a way back to the outside world for some, many of the older people were permanent residents who lived there until they died. One of these long-term residents at the hostel was Mr Swissker; he repaired clocks for everyone; his bedroom had basically turned into a workshop and he sat in the middle of it surrounded by his tools and clocks and watches. There was also workshops where some of the men did carpentry and wheelchair repairs, fixing spokes and so on.

Some paraplegics who had gone out back to their families also came back at the very end of their lives to die there, especially when their condition became too difficult for them to be looked after at home. So part of it was offering respite and terminal care to patients at the end. If you were a paraplegic who had been through Stoke it became a huge part of your life, both socially and medically, what with coming back every year for check-ups, returning for the games and so on and for many of the older patients it seemed the natural place to return to die. I remember patients like Morris Gressor Stenton and John Pratt who made their home in the hostel; Jimmy could make it more homely than the main hospital. A number of paraplegics chose to return there for care at the end of their lives, it would be similar to what is called a hospice today, although we never used the term. The philosophy of a dignified end of life pathway was very important to Jimmy.

Download a pdf of the full transcript here