Touchy subject

LIZ BYRSKI’S dilemma is obvious as she talks about her latest book, In Love and War, nursing heroes.

The non-fiction work tells the story of young nurses employed in large part based on their looks—in order to make the horrifically injured men they were to treat feel better about themselves.

It’s an intensely personal story, touching on Byrski’s own post-WWII childhood and her fear of the men from the nearby hospital, who were often in town with their missing limbs and disfigured faces.

Because of the ground-breaking, unorthodox plastic surgery by Kiwi surgeon Archibald McIndo the men became known as the “guinea-pig club”. To get in, you had to have been “mashed, fried or boiled” in the air during the war, and be treated at the East Grinstead hospital.

The appallingly disfigured airmen, many missing noses, eyes and hands, needed all stops pulled out to save them, both physically and mentally.

And so it was the imposing McIndoe tossed out the normal rules of non-fraternisation between nurse and patient, in order to give “his boys” the best chance of leading a normal life, including feeling attractive to women.

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Flirting was common-place and Byrski believes groping would have been too: she also reports evidence of rampant sex, including in linen cupboards and a phone box. No prude, she notes the hospital was a “workplace and [some] women felt they were coerced”.

VAD was an acronym for volunteer aid detachment but for the patients it stood for “virgins awaiting destruction”. Women who didn’t comply were teased about being “frigid”.

For her book, Byrski tracked down surviving guinea pigs—now in their 80s and 90s—to ask them what they think the nurses thought of what was happening: “They said ‘they loved it’,” she says, and believes they genuinely think that.

But interviews with the now elderly women uncover a darker tale: many had gone along with the unrelenting sexual innuendo—and more—from a sense of “duty” to their war hero patients.

“One was so upset because she hadn’t talked about it before,” Byrski says.

The book reveals the women still feel torn between not wanting to hurt the feelings of the handful of remaining guinea pigs, and wanting their stories told.

It’s a dilemma Byrski has sought to address with sensitivity.

Published by Fremantle Press, In Love and War, nursing heroes is available at bookshops, including Freo’s New Edition.


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