Treating Air Force Burn Victims
The nature of air force casualties was quite different from those in the army or navy. Many pilots and bomber crew casualties suffered debilitating injuries and disfigurement when their planes were shot down or otherwise crashed. The fate of a fighter pilot could be especially grim, sitting directly behind the plane’s fuel tank, which often ignited causing horrific burns. The Queen Victoria Cottage Hospital in East Grinstead, 50 kilometres south of London, became an air force hospital specializing in burns and plastic surgery. The hospital was run by a New Zealander, Dr. Archibald McIndoe, and a Canadian Wing was opened in 1944 led by Dr. Ross Tilley of Bowmanville, Ontario. The men treated at the Queen Victoria each faced a difficult recovery:
When a man is lying in bed bandaged from head to toe, with eyelids gone, without a nose, it is hard to think of a useful life to come, harder still to believe there might be love and joy in his future. His life has crashed and burned and he is perhaps nineteen, perhaps twenty-one. Does he want to die? Quite possibly. He is in agony. If he is from a farm he remembers the merciful way a gravely injured animal is put down. Does he want to live? Hard to imagine when everything he once saw in his future, a few days ago, has disappeared in a blinding flash (Rita Donovan, As for the Canadians: the Remarkable Story of the RCAF’s “Guinea Pigs” of World War II, 2000, p. 18-19).
Fortunately, McIndoe was a visionary who did not allow orthodoxy or military bureaucracy to interfere with the treatment of his patients. Among other unusual measures, he arranged for the elimination of rank segregation, standard in other military hospitals, as well as the hated patient garments, because a “man lost his identity in the hospital blues… McIndoe felt that if anyone had earned the right to wear their uniforms it was these men” (Donovan, p. 19). McIndoe and other members of the staff believed that their duty was to do more than return their patients to their units; with such horrible injuries, caring for the patients’ emotional needs could be just as important as healing the physical wounds. He decided that because these men would normally have been “going out for a drink and flirting with the girls”, beer should be made available in the hospital ward. Regular outings to local pubs in East Grinstead were arranged, so patients would be forced to conquer, early in their recovery, their fear of being seen by “normal” people. “As for the girls, well, [McIndoe] reasoned that any young man, scarred or unscarred, was interested in a pretty face. So he recruited the best-looking nurses he could find. After all, an attractive woman who would talk to and joke with a patient would make that patient far more likely to start feeling good about himself” (Donovan, p. 20).
The men who came to the Queen Victoria kept self-pity in check with the realization that “there was always someone worse off than you were” (Donovan, p. 25). McIndoe’s compassion coupled with new techniques-saline baths, sulfa, and penicillin being more widely used while the traditional treatment with tannic acid went into decline-made possible a more complete recovery than in earlier times. The camaraderie born from the sharing of similar, difficult circumstances led the patients to christen themselves The Guinea Pig Club. The Club, in true wartime spirit, even had its own anthem:
We are McIndoe’s army,
We are his Guinea Pigs.
With dermatomes and pedicles,
Glass eyes, false teeth and wigs.
And when we get our discharge
We’ll shout with all our might:
‘Per ardua ad astra,’
We’d rather drink than fight.
John Hunter runs the gas works,
Ross Tilley wields a knife.
And if they are not careful
They’ll have your flaming life.
So, Guinea Pigs, stand steady
For all your surgeon’s calls;
And if their hands aren’t steady
They’ll whip off both your ears.
We’ve had some mad Australians,
Some French, some Czechs, some Poles.
We’ve even had some Yankees,
God bless their precious souls.
While as for the Canadians-
Ah! That’s a different thing.
They couldn’t stand our accent
And built a separate Wing.
(quoted in Donovan, p. 16)