Memories of Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann from patients at Stoke Mandeville

Patient Chris Checkley

Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann and the patients receiving a wheelchair

The Hoover company adopted the ward and they donated this wheelchair - which was very modern then. They came in weekly and brought gifts. There is Poppa at the edge (it was very unusual for him to be smiling). That's me aged 16 in the bed.

I had a degenerative disease;  I was an 11 year old on a geriatric ward before I came to Stoke.  I had spent 2 years in a general hospital, but never got pressure sores – they took really good care there – I was turned and monitored frequently and bathed twice a day. Then I got moved to Stoke.  I was there for about 9 months at the age of 16.

I used to fight with Guttmann all the time, he was always full of self-importance.  He used to come round the ward with lots of people around him – we used to call it the circus.   You had to make a list of what you’d done; there was a very strict regime and if you didn’t follow it you were out. Poppa expected everyone to do as he said and if you didn’t follow the regime he said there were other people that would use the beds.

You didn’t always want to follow it, but Guttmann used to say ‘If you don’t do it, you’re out. That bed can be use for someone who WILL work’.

But other people loved the man. My future husband was also treated by Guttmann and he was devoted to him.

Patient Diana Gabb

When I came to Stoke Mandeville in 1954 I remember it as a lot of old Nissan huts, not dissimilar in fact to the pony club camp where I had contracted Polio the previous year! In each ward hut there were 14 beds lined up on the left and right; great big metal beds each with a ‘monkey pole’ for hoisting yourself up on (they don’t use them now, they wrench your shoulders out of balance). I remember being woken up every four hours by a nurse to be turned. A ward trolley stood in the middle of the room from which they dished out the meals. At the end of the ward was the day room from which you had access out onto the grass. The bathroom and toilets were primitive and not very clean; and the roof leaked.

Patient Margaret Maughan

Margaret Maughan as a patient in a bed surrounded by family members

Margaret in bed on the ward at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1959

One day Dr Guttmann just appeared at my bedside; he had been away somewhere for a few days.  I came to know him very well and discovered he was the boss.

From then on every week his ward round was quite an experience. There would be about 20 people with him – nurses, physios, junior doctors, visitors – all come to see what his treatment was like.  He would go to each bed on the ward and hold forth in a loud voice about each patient’s condition; so we all ended up knowing about each other.

He could be very curt. You didn’t dare say anything back to him. I remember once I told him I was bored and I got this long lecture about how I shouldn’t be bored because there was always something to do or be thinking about.

Patient Rainer Kuschell

Finding Stoke Mandeville

When I was sixteen years old I broke my neck in a diving accident in a swimming pool; this was in July 1963. In those days in Switzerland nobody knew anything about spinal cord injuries. I was simply sent to the big area hospital where my family lived and put on my back; I lay there for six months.

My injury meant that I was a quadriplegic with seeming no movement in either my arms or legs. I was told – and I believed – that it was just a matter of time before I would die. They even sent in the priest to convert me to Catholicism so that my soul would go to heaven.

Eventually we found out about Stoke Mandeville Hospital and the treatment there. Then my step parents got all the people in my village together and raised money for me and finally, 18 months after my accident, in December 1964, I was flown to England.

The Journey: Switzerland to England

I remember that journey so well because it was quite strange. I was carried onto an ordinary passenger plane from which they had removed several rows of seats so that I could be laid on the floor on a very thin mattress.

I was lying there totally naked just covered with a thin towel – and this was mid-winter – and all around me there were normal passengers in their seats looking at me; I remember finding it very embarrassing.

People in Wheelchairs

But then when we landed at London I remember being left on the plane while all the other passengers disembarked and looking out of the window. And it was so strange, because right opposite there was another plane loading up; and all around it were people in wheelchairs; and they were laughing and smiling in the snow.

It was the very first time I had seen people in wheelchairs; and there were so many of them and they seemed happy. I remember thinking, what is this wheelchair city I have come to?

I discovered afterwards that it was the British team going off to one of the winter wheelchair games. But it was such a peculiar coincidence for me to see them and it felt like a good omen.

Life at the hospital

So then I went to Stoke Mandeville for three months; that was all the money that had been raised would allow for. The first big shock was being turned on my bed every three hours.

For the last eighteen months I had simply been immobile on my back and I was stiff like a wooden blade. No one had done this in Switzerland and of course it hurt incredibly! So much so that I fainted and collapsed from the pain.

I had my first meeting with Guttmann a few days later. I remember he was really interested in me and in taking care of me; he reflected a kind of fatherly emotional situation.

Then after his examination I was sent to a physiotherapist. A few weeks later he came back to me and said. ‘Rainer, I am not going to try and kid you about any miracle cures. The only thing I will be able to do for you is to get you so that instead of lying on your back you can sit in a wheel chair.’