Circe’s Island is the testimony of a TB patient, Isabel Gillard, who was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to have contracted the disease whilst living in Edinburgh at the time of great advances in treatment.
During and just after the second world war, TB patients who had been isolated in sanatoria under Sir Robert Philips’ Edinburgh system had been cleared out to make way for war veterans and the resulting rise in infection had reached drastic proportions. The Edinburgh system, which had been so successful in dealing with the illness, went by the wayside, and it was only with the arrival of Professor Sir John Crofton, that things began to improve again.
Isabella Strahan was diagnosed with tuberculosis after completing her second year at Edinburgh University. In 1950, the treatment consisted of keeping the patient in freezing cold conditions and injecting air through a hypodermic syringe into the cavity between the chest wall and the lung, in order to collapse the lung and rest it. This procedure was carried out weekly, with only a local anaesthetic.
But new treatments in the form of chemotherapy were being trialled, various cocktails of para-amino salycilic acid, streptomycin and isoniazid, which enabled some patients to recover and adopt near normal lives. Bella was one of those whose timing enabled her to experience both the old and the new, the cold cures, occasional surgery and drugs that were being administered in what might now seem quite a cavalier fashion.
In those days, doctors did not see the need to explain their actions to anyone, least of all the patients, and it is to Bella’s credit that she recounts her experiences of the 16 months she stayed at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Craigleith, so calmly and unsensationally.
Sir John Crofton himself provided an introduction to the book, prior to his death in 2009. Isabella’s account covers not just the medical treatment, but the social, emotional, sociological and educational issues that had to be dealt with in those days of the early National Health Service.
Circe’s Island is a good read and a reminder of how far medical science has come. It is available here from Amazon