My memories of GOSH

Eileen Walker first arrived at Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1949. When her health worsened as a teenager, the hospital found a solution and inspired Eileen’s career in nursing.

GOSH was a very different place in 1949. The hospital had been damaged during the London Blitz, with patients being moved out of the city to escape the bombing. After the war, rebuilding began. The new Heart and Lung Unit opened in 1947, the first such specialist department for children in the UK.

Despite the rapid modernisation that was underway, the hospital was still largely Victorian in its infrastructure – not that this bothered Eileen, who found her own joy in her early appointments, when she was treated for particularly aggressive eczema.

“I loved visiting GOSH, I had no fear of the place because just as you went inside, there was a cafe area with a very large rocking horse. He really was magnificent and I looked forward to having a ride on him every time we went. So I was quite happy visiting this hospital!” 

Throughout her childhood, Eileen exhibited other symptoms, including exhaustion, shortage of breath and an inability to gain weight. Twice, she was sent out of London to boarding school. Eileen’s health did improve away from the city, but her condition left her unable to join in with the fun and games of her fellow pupils.

Returning to GOSH

In 1956, Eileen’s symptoms worsened. Aged 11, she weighed just four stone, despite being nearly five feet tall (see top image, far left).

“My breathing got worse and worse to the point where about every two weeks I was in bed with the GP being called out as I would be going blue through lack of oxygen. In October, I was taken very ill. A locum was called. He took one look at me and asked which hospital I was under. My mother said I had been to GOSH for the eczema when I was younger – so an ambulance was called, and I was taken back to GOSH.”

Back in hospital, Eileen was diagnosed with Addison’s disease, an endocrine disorder where the body doesn’t produce enough of the hormone, cortisol. Today, around 8,500 people live with Addison’s – treatment exists to manage the condition. In 1956, medical understanding was still developing.

“One good thing did come about though from spending so much time in bed, I could read. I listened to music every day too and I found that I could play the piano by ear. I then taught myself Tonic Sol-fa so my life mainly in bed wasn’t completely wasted.”

Waking up on the ward 

“My first memory is of coming to a little room all by myself, all was quiet and peaceful. It felt such a lovely, calm place to be. I remember a nun dressed in white, who was training as a nurse, standing by my bed. I made them laugh because I thought she was an angel and that I’d died and gone to Heaven!”

Sixty-one years on, Eileen remembers the kindness of Nurse Green, who tended to her every day during her time at GOSH. Dr Bernard Schlesinger, one of the senior physicians at the hospital and a veteran of both World Wars, was Eileen’s doctor. With Eileen’s condition getting worse, Dr. Schlesinger proposed a new combination of medications as part of a pioneering clinical trial.

“I can’t explain the difference these tablets made to my life and how I felt. I had energy and I began to use a wheelchair to get around. Eventually I didn’t need it, and I was able to walk around on my own without being wobbly. I also started to have lessons in a room just around the corner from where I slept. It was lovely mixing with other children.” 

“It all made a very big impression on me because I hadn’t known any other children who were very sick until coming into GOSH. In outpatients, most children seemed outwardly OK, so sometimes you felt like you were the only one.”

Bouncing back

Returning home was a thrill for Eileen. She had regular check-ups with Dr Schlesinger, but continued to get better and better – finally being able to enjoy the fun and games of an active childhood. “I can’t put into words the joy of being able to play with the children outside instead of just sitting on the steps watching.” 

Later in life, Eileen trained as an SEN nurse – relishing the opportunity to provide the care and attention that she had received as a child. “I must say I really enjoyed working in a hospital and being able to help people and seeing things from the other side. I really loved every minute of it – my best job ever!” 

From the consultants and carers, to the cooks and cleaners, Eileen remains hugely grateful to everyone at the hospital, then and now. “Thank you to everyone who makes GOSH the wonderful place that it is. Over the years, they have given so many of us the chance to live a full and useful life.”

To find out more about the hospital's history, explore our in-depth guide exploring 165 years of caring for seriously ill children.