Health services struggle during war years

From the mid 1930s to the mid 1950s Galway medical services were on the verge of collapse. The situation at the Central Hospital was particularly chaotic. By 1933 the hospital had a nominal 317 acute beds but overcrowding soon became a permanent feature of the general and medical wards. In March 1938 the number of patients exceeded the beds by 10, with 251 in general wards, 52 in the fever, and 24 in maternity. It was common practice to accommodate patients on mattresses laid out between the beds.

Particularly distressing were the large number of long-stay tuberculosis patients.* In the era of pre streptomycin and other anti-tubercular drugs, many non-respiratory TB patients were often kept in restrictive Bradford Frames for one to two years. The mortality rate was seven per cent, considered unduly high even for the time. I have mentioned before that such overcrowding offered ideal conditions for many serious outbreaks of infectious diseases. In 1940 an outbreak of typhoid was attributed to a ‘carrier’ in the general wards.

On top of all this were the deprivations imposed by the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Certain drugs and dressings were soon in short supply. Maintaining equipment, such as ambulances and X-ray units in working order was especially difficult. For a time the X-ray unit had to be closed down. For a long period only two ambulances were available for the whole county. As they were frequently on the road simultaneously there was no reserve vehicle at the hospital to answer any emergency. Fuel shortages and intermittent gas supply caused problems with heating, laundry and cooking. Food rationing added to the difficulties.

We all know now that the war ended in 1945 with victory for the Allies, but during the conflict, and for some time, it appeared that victory could go either way. Belfast was bombed at regular intervals; and in 1941 there was a serious German raid on Dublin’s North Strand area. The Irish Government insisted that Galway, along with other urban areas, devise an emergency plan to be ready to receive an unknown number of casualties should a similar disaster happen here.

It was a serious challenge for the medical and civilian authorities to find extra space in the conditions that prevailed at the time.

Serious cutbacks

Euphemistically called The Emergency, the war imposed all kinds of difficulties on everyone. By 1941/2 essential goods were in short supply. Rationing was introduced for many staple goods such as bread, sugar, butter, tea and clothes. Petrol was only available to a few Government or public transport vechicles. Households were reduced to heating their homes, and cooking their food, using turf, often insufficiently dried due to demand. Large stacks of turf were piled at Eyre Square. Bus and train services were severely curtailed. Trains often took 12 or 14 hours from Galway to Dublin. Rural areas were particularly isolated by the reduction of delivery and bus services.

The plan

Yet despite the misery of it all (though our grandparents appeared to have cheerfully sailed through it** ), and serious medical cutbacks, Galway did produce an impressive emergency plan. The Irish Army took over St Enda’s school on Threadneedle Road, and converted it into a military hospital. It commandeered old busses and converted them into ambulances capable of carrying 15 to 20 casualties. Dr Michael O’Donnell, a Galway graduate, and a member of the administrative staff at the Central Hospital, was made responsible for co-ordinating arrangements in the town. A reserve of drugs and non perishable food sufficient for four months was established. The Nurses’ Home was to be converted into an emergency hospital, with full operating facilities. The nurses were to be billited in the town. The gate lodge was to be converted into a burns and gas treatment centre; and if necessary, the whole hospital would be evacuated to Colaiste Connacht in Spiddal.

It was the best plan for its time. It has an air of efficiency about it and it probably would have worked well. Fortunately it was never required. But when in September 1939 Galway was asked to to help the survivors of the Athenia, torpedoed off the west coast, there was an outpouring of practical help, and warm hospitality that impressed the American authorities. The US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, in a letter to President Eamon de Valera stated ‘I cannot praise too highly the efficient handling of the situation by the Galway people, and their splendid human spirit.’

In the coming weeks: The development of the new Regional and Merlin Park hospitals; the blight of tuberculosis in the town and county; the founding of the first Irish Knights of Malta by Dr Conor O’Malley, and its practical ambulance assistance to an ailing medical regime; the sinking of the Athenia, and Galway’s proud response.

NOTES: *The foundation stone for Merlin Park was laid by Dr Noel Browne, Minister for Health, in 1948, and the first units were opened 1954. But in view of the urgency of the tuberculosis problem patients were accommodated at Woodlands, Renmore (now Brother of Charity Services ), from July 1952.

Plans for the new Regional Hospital were being endlessly argued over and renewed. Eventually after seven attempts the foundation stone was finally laid, again by Noel Browne, as late as 1949. It was opened in 1955.

** John Betjeman, the British press attaché in Dublin, and later poet, reported: ‘No coal. No petrol. No gas. No electric. No paraffin. Guinness good.’

For this week’s Diary I am digging deep into James P Murray’s wonderful Galway: A Medico Social History, published by Kenny’s 1992.

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