Winifred Cumming

Nine year old Winnie Cumming was one of the first patients in Scotland to be given a new form of heart surgery in the early days of the NHS.

“I would not be here today if it was not for the NHS”

“I would not be here today if it was not for the NHS. . . .”

However, it was a worrying time. Her parents were told that the chances of success were no more than 50/50.

Winnie had been born with a heart complaint caused by the failure of a duct connecting the heart to the lungs to close properly. As she grew older the symptoms started to become noticeable.

“My hands used to go slightly blue and I didn’t have the same stamina as other children.” Without treatment, her life expectancy would have been shortened.

The operation was performed in January 1950 by Professor Mercer at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Winnie thinks he had not long returned from the United States where he had learned how to correct such a heart defect. “It was a pioneering operation at the time, for all concerned and was fortunately successful,” she said. “Three cheers for progress and the NHS.”

Today such treatment is seen as routine but, prior to the creation of the NHS, it would not have been available to children such as Winnie.

However, it was not Winnie’s first experience of hospitals. At the age of seven she was struck down with polio and spent seven months in Edinburgh’s City Hospital. Because of the infectious nature of the disease, visitors were strictly limited and she had little contact with her parents and brother throughout this period.

Many families were in a similar position and the local newspaper, the Edinburgh Evening News, had a system to keep them informed of their loved one’s condition. All polio patients were given a number and the numbers appeared in the newspaper everyday under certain categories such as “seriously ill” or “recovering.”

“I was well and truly institutionalised for seven months or so,” recalled Winnie. “ Memorable things of this time were the food – mince and potatoes or fish and potatoes followed by semolina, with a dollop of jam – each day. Not surprisingly I have never eaten semolina since – 210 days of semolina is enough for a lifetime! If you didn’t eat the food you were denied your sweet ration of three sweeties.”

The polio attack left Winnie with a slight paralysis on the right side of her body. She had to have a calliper fitted to her leg when she left hospital and was given physiotherapy to help overcome the paralysis. Although she has continued to suffer some joint pain in later life, she made a good recovery.

“Since then, my family and myself have been well treated by the NHS. We are very grateful for all it has done,“ Winnie added.