Neal Dempsey, My Life Story


Haslar and H.M.S Ariel

After my Foreign Service leave I returned to R.N.H Haslar, and would you believe it back on to my old ward B5 Dirty Surgical, but this time as the Senior Sick berth Attendant on the ward. I was quite happy with this, and night duty (1 Month) was also a lot easier. I was not on a ward but rather as night duty patrol walking around to each ward every hour to sign the register; and check to see that the nurse on the ward was all right and didn't have any difficulties to deal with, or was not asleep. Ashore I remade old acquaintances with my dancing partners but was a little unhappy about the trek over Pneumonia Bridge to the Gosport Ferry every time. Going to Southsea was not as bad as having to walk back late at night.

Shortly after my arrival at the Hospital I had a Sick Bay man put onto my ward for a few weeks. I was told under no circumstances was he to be allowed to have access to the treatment room and that he was only to be allowed to do outside work like taking the laundry, emptying bins etc., it transpired that he was being investigated for infanticide. He had allegedly murdered all three of his baby children over a period of time. He told me that his children seemed to cry a lot, and one day when he was on night duty he couldn't sleep, the eldest child had a cold with a temperature and was continually crying. His wife had gone out so he gave the baby half a 'Seconal' tablet (a sedative) the baby went to sleep, and so did he. The next day the problem was the same so he tried the other half of the same tablet with good result, but this time his wife was there and watched what he did. After the fourth and fifth time the tablet didn't work too well, so his wife increased the dosage until eventually the baby went to sleep and didn't wake. The doctor issued a death certificate with a diagnosis of Pneumonia, a funeral took place and the baby was buried. When the second baby arrived after a while a similar incidence occurred. The wife was giving the baby the tablets when Ian was at work. In time she became pregnant with a third baby, and soon after this baby was born the second baby died. Apparently while the baby was still at a tender age, Mrs Armstrong would turn up at a dancehall at Lee on Solent and dance the night away while Ian was on duty, she was giving the baby the Seconal tablets to put it to sleep when she went out. She had become very unpopular with the other wives round about because of her promiscuous behaviour so when the third baby died of Pneumonia they went to the doctor and Police, complaining that the deaths were too convenient and deeply suspicious. The previous two babies were exhumed and post mortems were carried out on all three. All three were shown to have died of poisoning.

Ian told me that even though he didn't kill the children, he felt he was indirectly responsible because he had started to give the first baby half tablets. He didn't know his wife was increasing the dose. His wife accused him of deliberately giving the babies the tablets and told her what to do; she claimed that she didn't understand what they were. He was subsequently arrested and charged and went to the Old Bailey for trial. His wife accused him before the Court and after a long trial he was convicted and sentenced to hang. A week after the trial and sentence, Mrs Armstrong went to the Daily Mirror (I think) and claimed that she had misled the Court and that he didn't know she was giving the tablets when he was at work. There was a tremendous cry of protest from the Ban Hanging Lobby until eventually the then Home Secretary repealed the Death Sentence and commuted it to Life. Armstrong served Fourteen years and learnt to be a Carpenter in Gaol. He divorced his wife within six months of beginning his sentence. She stayed in Southsea for a while and went back to the dance Hall at Lee on Solent, but was taken outside the Dance Hall by some Royal Marines and given a good hiding. She was black legged by all the wives and strongly advised by the Police to leave the area. She went to her home in Wales and tried to sell her story to the press. In this she was completely unsuccessful, in fact the newspaper published the fact that she had tried and expressed the complete disgust at her behaviour. It was now popularly believed that it was in fact she who had committed the murders and not her husband. This is my strong belief also; the black humour is that ever after, Seconal Tablets were always referred to in the Sick Bay as 'Tab's Armstrong'.

In Haslar itself I was about to become a thorn in the side. I had learned my lesson after seeing the poor squaddie on the troopship coming home from Singapore, and so made application to be allowed to return to the Plastic Surgery unit in Oxford to have my operations finished on my face. I honestly admit that no one in the Navy had ever made any unkind or derogatory comment in my hearing, but apart from being comfortable in the company of girls on the dance floor, outside that environment I was still very much on my own and at 22 years of age. I felt I should be making some impression with girls. I made application firstly through the Surgeon Captain Surgical, he was not impressed and said I could have the operation but he would do it. I said No Thank You Sir. I was summarily dismissed knowing my copybook was smudged. I then reapplied through the Medical side of the Hospital and saw another Surgeon Captain who told me I had already been offered treatment by the Navy and I had refused it, was I going to change my mind? I said NO I wasn't, but I wanted to go back to the Nuffield Department where they had done all my previous operations. He said he wouldn't allow it as he didn't think there was much else could be done and the risk for me was too radical. I went back to my Ward and within a week I was on draft to H.M.S Ariel at Worthydown in Hampshire.

H.M.S. Ariel was a Naval Air Station where Air Mechanics and Air Artificers were trained. The Sick Bay comprised Three Doctors a Chief Petty Officer, a Petty Officer. One Leading Sick Berth Attendant (Me), three Sick Berth attendants and three Wren Sick Berth Attendants. I had just had my 22nd Birthday and got my first Badge (A chevron under my badge of rank). Each of the Sickbay men took it in turns to do a duty overnight in the Sick Bay and a weekend every third week. A Wren would be on duty but on call if required for a female patient. I was available to call if I was on the base, which was most of the time. On my arrival I was told by the Surgeon Commander that I could not consider going to Oxford, so I could settle down to a couple of years at the base. My job there was mainly administration and medical records, except as standby if there was any flying. It was a very happy group in the Sick Bay.

There were dances every month and I met a girl who seemed interested in me. She was a student nurse from the local hospital and was a very good dancer. Once more I cannot recall her name, I remember she was quite an attractive girl, but I really didn't know how to deal with her. This sounds and reads ridiculous now, but I had a different agenda. I didn't want any relationships at this time, which were going to be difficult to continue with, particularly at long distance. I was going to Oxford and I didn't want firm attachments because I didn't know what would happen to me after I'd been to Oxford. I was in the process of contacting the Doctors at the Churchill Hospital about my predicament and they were being very sympathetic indeed.

About a month after I arrived at the base I had been out one evening to a dance, and returned at about eleven o'clock. I went up to my mess and had turned in. I went to sleep. At half past midnight I was awakened by a seaman from the guard at the gate, he told me that I was wanted urgently in the Sick Bay. I slipped my raincoat over my pyjamas and put my shoes on and ran to the Sick Bay, when I got there the Duty Sick Bay man had a patient who was choking and suffocating. He told me the man; a Petty Officer had come into the Sick bay because he couldn't stop coughing with a tickle in his throat. The Sickbay man had said, "I know how to treat that", and had immediately sprayed his throat with an Antihistamine spray. The patients throat had started to swell and the sickbay man realised he was allergic to Antihistamine (It was on the patients medical History card in large red capital letters). I told him to get hold of the Medical Guard (Duty Doctor) immediately. There was no choice; I did a tracheotomy immediately (Put in a metal tube into the windpipe below the Adams apple). He showed a dramatic improvement and then slowly started to decline again. I kept the airway clean and started to blow into the tube to inflate his lungs, but after a couple of hours, still no doctor had arrived I saw that we were losing him. I made the sickbay man go personally to see the Officer of the watch and tell him the patient was dying and we needed a doctor or ambulance urgently. Haslar said they would send an ambulance with doctor which arrived 3/4 hour later. The local G.P. arrived at the same time. A heated argument ensued then between the G.P. and the Naval Surgeon about training Hospitals and responsibility in Naval Establishments. They both agreed my patient was dead. I informed the Officer of the watch who in turn informed the Officer of the Day. Fur was about to fly so I told the Sickbay man to do something useful like - put the kettle on. I moved the deceased out of the ward where we had been treating him and in a small side room I cleaned him up and laid him out. I noticed then that there were a number of patients in the ward who I had not realised. Needless to say they were all wide-awake and had heard the whole drama unfold. (I was to be reminded of this 30 years later!)

Time had moved on and the Surgeon Commander arrived, there was quite a meeting going on in his office. The Officer of the Day wanted to know why I was in my pyjamas and I realised that it was now 7 o'clock and the staff were coming in. News travels like lightning around any Barracks and Ariel was no exception. The staff knew there had been a death in the Sickbay and everybody wanted to know the detail. I was relieved by the Doctor and went back to get dressed. It was quite odd walking up through the Barracks to my mess in my pyjamas and raincoat when everyone was running around fully dressed. When I returned cleaned, shaved and dressed one of the wrens had cooked me a superb breakfast and insisted that I sit in my office out of the way and eat it in peace. With a pot of tea I felt like a new man, I was on a high because I had done the tracheotomy and hadn't stopped to think of the consequences, I had acted on instinct almost. The kit was there and it could have saved his life, it did keep him going for a while longer but I would never trust that sickbay man again. I must have told him what I thought of him during the night, or maybe I didn't, I don't know, but he avoided me like the plague for the rest of the week and when he did come near me again he was like a whipped dog. I will remember him for life, indeed I did meet him again years later, but that was to come. I know he made a mistake, but he should have stood up like a man and been honest. After Tot time the Surgeon Commander sent me off duty to get some rest. I must have been beginning to look tired out. The Post Mortem showed he had died from anaphylactic shock with inflammation and swelling of the whole of the mouth, throat and airway closed with excessive fluid in the lungs.

I had come to an agreement with the Hospital at Oxford that I would be admitted over the August Bank Holiday weekend, which would give them enough time to do my premedication and examinations ready for the next series of operations on my face and mouth. The Doctors there knew I had been forbidden to go by the Navy, but, as that was my difficulty that did not put them off. I prepared my own papers for discharge to a civilian Hospital and put all the relevant papers including my own Medical History folder (F.Med.4) in a large sealed envelope addressed to myself in my own in tray. I then wrote a note to the Chief Petty Officer explaining what I had done and put that in a sealed envelope addressed to him in his in tray. I knew he would be the first away on the Friday and the last back on the Tuesday after the Bank Holiday weekend. I then went home and spent the Saturday getting my things ready to be admitted to Hospital on the Sunday. I really believed at that stage I would be dismissed the service, but I just didn't care.

On the Monday after my admission I had photographs taken, x-rays and a whole catalogue of physical examinations. I weighed 11 stone at that time. I was starved that night and was to be the first into Theatre the next day. I went into the Operating Theatre at about the same time as the documentation would have been hitting fan level at H.M.S Ariel. I was told afterwards that there was furious activity to get me back, but the Barracks was told I was in the Operating Theatre and it would be some weeks before I could travel. I later received a very snotty letter from R.N.H. Haslar to say that I had to return there when my treatment was complete and as I was in defiance of orders to the contrary I would be dealt with under the Discipline Code on my return. I tore up the letter and threw it in the waste bin. I didn't receive any pay or subsistence allowance while I was in Hospital, but not having any money was not an unknown experience to me, so it was not the greatest hardship.

Before surgeryThe first Operation was perhaps visually the most dramatic. At the time my top lip had been altered from its original cleft to a tight narrow lip over my top teeth, so that when I tried to smile it was more like a grimace. My nose was almost miss -shaped even though it had been remodelled previously it still had a distinct leaning to the right and the nostrils were markedly uneven. If I ate or drank too quickly it was not unusual for the food or drink to be thrown out through my nostrils, which was completely involuntary, and an agonising embarrassment when it happened in public.

I had a section of bone taken from my right pelvic crest and shaped to form the shape of my nose with small bone pillars to hold it in place. The bone was inserted through the end of the nose, and then held in place with a splint. The nostrils were packed with adrenalin wicks, which take my word for it is disgusting to taste. My lower lip was opened and part turned to form a pedicle (a bit like a sausage) and one end grafted into an opening cut into the centre of my top lip. My lips were then effectively joined together. I kept two small tubes between my lips either side of the pedicle graft to enable me to breath and take a little liquid refreshment. Conversation for the next two weeks would be nil.

Post operative

A few weeks laterI had my lips sewn together for two weeks before going back into the theatre to have the pedicle detached from the lower lip. The gap left in the lower lip was closed which left a vertical scar. The lip was then spread to from the centre part of my upper lip creating a hairline scar on the three sides it had made my lip equilateral, although at that time it was very tender and swollen the overall effect was very impressive. The swelling on my nose and bruising around my eyes had reduced considerably and I didn't look as if I had just head butted a Double Decker bus. One of the worst features about this whole process is that just when you are not able to laugh, everything becomes so hilariously funny, and I found that laughing was a very painful experience as I had to hold my face together so as not to pull on the pedicle and tear it apart. I do on occasion get attacks of the giggles, which render me utterly helpless. I had two weeks of agony. I now had to go through another more hazardous operation on my palate, I was given two weeks to recover and then taken back into theatre to have tissue taken from the pharynx and grafted in place of a short almost non existent soft palate. This was done and another pedicle of tissue was attached to the back of this graft to join it to the back wall of the nasal pharynx. This then should make it much easier for me to talk with almost no nasal escape. At the time this seemed a very difficult ambition. But having come so far I was determined to master it, the only problem then was the how was I to do it. I was in Hospital for a total of three months and when I was eventually discharged I weighed just nine stones and was as thin as a lathe. My face still had not settled down, my lips were swollen still and I had difficulty enunciating words, but I was getting better. I returned to Haslar in a little trepidation, half expecting to be discharged and possibly even being punished beforehand. It was a calculated chance I had taken and I was quite prepared to take whatever it was coming to me. My reception at the Hospital by the regulating staff was hostile although I thought I saw a hint of sympathy in there somewhere. I had to be on the Admirals defaulters the next day. As I was the only defaulter I suspect it was specially convened for me. It was the usual court martial procedure with both the Surgeon Captains who had refused me permission before in attendance. A Surgeon Lieutenant who was I discovered my Divisional Officer seemed sympathetic but the others seemed annoyed that I had defied them. One of them said in fact he thought I was worse off than before. (What a churlish attitude for a Doctor to adopt) I could understand that as I was still in the process of recovery, I did feel a bit of a mess and felt very weak. I was told I should be sent to Detention Quarters for two weeks, but I was patently not fit even to go on duty. Instead I was sent on sick leave for two weeks and I would be reviewed on my return.

My service record to date had been excellent and the incident at H.M.S. Ariel had been well noted. I was given a rail warrant and two weeks pay and sent home. After I had been at home for a week, I received a letter from my Divisional Officer with a further extension of one week and all my back pay for the time I had spent in hospital plus existence allowance. I was rich by my own standards. It allowed me to go out and buy a 'Grundig' Tape Recorder, and practice talking into the microphone and concentrating on my speech. The top actors of the time were in my opinion were Lawrence Olivier and Richard Burton. They were the most articulate of all the actors that I knew about. I tried so hard to copy them and practised continually. One thing became immediately obvious to me, which I had never noticed before and that was that both these actors enunciated every single syllable and each word was concise with a beginning and an end. Almost everyone around me seemed to blur one word into another and talk either too fast or in a staccato which is very difficult to follow. (Roman Latin manuscripts from B.C were written in this way, which meant that the recipients had to study the letter and break down the continual script into words to make any sense of it, almost an impossible task for the not so well educated 90% of the population). To copy these two men, I had to slow down and try to speak more concisely. The effect was really quite dramatic and I found an immediate improvement in myself. At first it used to bring tears to my eyes to hear myself speak, gradually I got better and learnt that I must not get cross or excited. I had to attend for speech therapy classes both in London and when I returned to Portsmouth, but it was so humiliating being made to read the books they used for 3 and 4 year olds I stopped going and stuck to my 'Grundig'. The progress was slow but definite and my confidence improved with it. I found also that if I used my throat more than my palate the end result was much better. Now in complete contrast I have no fear of speaking in public and in fact have even been paid to do so. When I returned to Haslar after my Sick Leave I took my recorder with me and persisted with it.

On my return to Haslar I was simply sent back to Staff Quarters and the next day returned to my old ward B5, just as if nothing had altered. Not a word was said about the threats from my discipline board life just carried on. I knew things would change though, I had changed, I certainly was becoming more self-confidence but I still remained a loner as always. A few months later I was posted to H.M.S. Vernon, which was another Stone Frigate next to Portsmouth Harbour Railway Station. This was just what I needed, a completely new existence for the new me and get rid of the old hang-ups and inhibitions.

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