Interview with Sandy Saunders


Interview with Sandy Saunders


Sandy Saunders recalls Liverpool being bombed in 1941 and while on a rescue squad he sustained splinter injuries from a blast requiring hospital treatment. After taking a science degree he served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a radar officer, working on gun sights and gun laying radar. He later remustered as a glider pilot. He describes his crash in a Tiger Moth during training. He was burned and consequently became a member of the Guinea Pig Club. He had twenty-eight operations including re-shaping his nose and skin grafts to his eyelids. He became a general practitioner in Nottingham and was in general practice for forty years until retirement.




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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today I’m in Burton Lazars talking with Doctor Arthur Saunders, Sandy Saunders, about his experiences in the Forces and in later life. Sandy, what do you remember in your earliest days?
AS: Not much, er, I was born in Bootle, Liverpool, and the third of four children and I had a quite a contented childhood. I went to a church school in the — in Bootle and, er, that was Christ Church School and then I got a scholarship at eleven to Bootle Secondary School, which was in fact a grammar school. It’s still going strong as Bootle Grammar School and, er, I managed to get a, a scholarship to do a science degree. I, I had had early feelings that I wanted to do, to do medicine but I didn’t get sufficient grades in my scholarship to, to get the five year grant. Anyway I got a sixty pounds a year scholarship and I did a — I started a, a science degree. It was a physics department run by a Professor Rotblat (R O T B L A T) who later became a — he went to Cambridge and was one of the developers of the atom bomb. He was a nuclear, nuclear physicist and, er, in 1941 I heard of a, er, a short service commission in REME for radar, radar officers so I applied for that and I, er, went into the Army and did my usual boots training and I was commissioned as a lieutenant in REME in, in 1940, ’40, ‘43, and I did two years as a radar officer, lieutenant in REME, and, er, it was straightforward work. It was working on various gun sites round the country and, er, calibrating the gun laying radar and — but it was very remote from enemy action and I suppose I was quite excited by the operations that were going on in Europe. 1941 there was the Pegasus Bridge Operation and that seemed really exciting and then there was Arnhem in 1943 and, and, er, I had a yearning to join the Glider Pilot Regiment. I applied for a transfer to the Glider Pilot Regiment in early 1945 and after the various medical checks and interviews and psychological checking and all the, the rest of the palaver I, I went off to, er, the battle course at Fargo camp in Sal— Salisbury and, er, did that and it was quite exciting, this kind of commando course, because of course glider pilots were soldiers and once the landed they were operational fighting troops. And then I went off to Booker Airfield near High Wycombe and did my ETFS, Elementary Flying Training School, and I did about seventy-five hours on flying Tiger Moths and I was — I passed out as a pilot of average ability. I'd done all sorts of exciting things. I did solo night flying and aerobatics, and recovery from stalls and all sorts of things. And it was great and I loved the flying and then I was sent off to a, to a conversion course to gliders, with the intention of becoming a pilot of, of — the war as over by this time by the way and I went off to, um, an airfield in, in Warwickshire and, er, I did some training on the gliders. They were — the gliders they used were, were Hotspurs. It was a smaller version of the, of the, er, troop carrying gliders, towed off by DC3s and, er, as part of the training I had to do I was sent off on a navigation exercise. We had the Link trainer and that gave us our basic navigation skills and, er, I was sent off, on a training triangular flight. I hadn’t flown a Tiger Moth since I was at Booker a month or two before and, er, the — I was instructed to take off on the grass runway. At, at this airfield there was only one runway and that, that was occupied by gliders and tower aircraft so I was asked to take off on the outer wind strip which was ninety degrees out of wind. So I took off with a, a corporal in the front cockpit to do the navigation and, er, there was no problem taking off and I did the triangular flight and it took about probably twenty-five or thirty minutes. I returned to the airfield and, er, I had to land on this grass strip. There were no, no other aircraft in sight and I attempted to land and I had to side slip in because the wind was obviously increased and, er, I had to side slip but coming out it seemed like an angle of about thirty degrees. I thought it was unsafe to put the wheels down and so decided to go round again and I made a circuit, same thing, and I went — I opened the throttle and went round again, did another circuit of the airfield, circuit and bumps they used to say, and on the third attempt, er, I don’t know, probably the lack of experience, I, er, made a late decision to, to go round again and by this time feeling rather fraught. In charge of an aircraft, you’ve got no contact with the control tower and there’s no radio because it’s an open cockpit two-seater plane and, er, I opened the throttle, went to go round again, and found I was going towards some trees and I pulled the stick back to get over the trees and I overcooked it and went into a stall and, of course, then everything goes floppy. You’re, you’re out of control and, er, I — the plane just dropped in a stall, hit the ground rather hard and I was knocked out. I, I presumed that my head had hit the control panel, the instrument panel and, er, by some miracle I, I was wakened by the flames all round. I was obviously on fire and, er, the survival instinct kicked in. Shut my eyes tightly. I think my goggles had been knocked off in the, in the crash and, er, I managed to undo my harness, again instinctive, and climbed out over the starboard side of the aircraft and dropped to the ground and next thing I knew I was in hospital. The, er, the corporal in the front seat must have been killed instantly. I flew in a Tiger Moth last month. The BBC arranged it. They were doing a documentary. I think the film was last Monday, Monday of last week and, er, I was in the front cockpit during that flight and I must say that I had a momentary flash of grief. I get, I get nightmares even now, flashback nightmares, fortunately not so often nowadays but it, it always contained this grief about the navigator in the front seat. What he must have felt when the plane stalled God knows. You’ve only fractions of a second to think about it before you die. So anyway, it’s, er, a rather pathetic story of, of crashing a plane but, you know, there’s no drama to it. I ended, I ended up in the Guinea Pig Club. You know there were thirty-four Spitfire and Hurricane pilots who’d taken part in the Battle of Britain. They, they’d sustained their burns in act—action and, er, I just got mine from a training accident. It’s a — yeah but it was wonderful when I got to East Grinstead eventually. That was in 19— the end of 1946. I was in hospital in Birmingham for, for a year and they did my, my resuscitation and the initial grafting and, er, I had really horrific disfigurement and, anyway, I was under a general surgeon there. He’d done a course in — at East Grinstead and he did my initial facial reconstruction. He gave me four new eye lids and, er, at the end of a year I was back on duty, light duties, non-combatant duties, in REME. I was — they were mainly in central workshops and then I was, I was posted as second in command of a prisoner of war camp in Derbyshire. And it was there that the medical officer checked me over. I, I couldn’t close my eyes properly and I got recurrent infections and, and it was he who suggested that I see the national expert in burns surgery at East Grinstead and, er, I went there in late 1946 and, er, McIndoe looked at me and he offered, he offered further help. He said, ‘You need four new eyelids and reconstruction of your nose and some work around face and,’ he said, ‘Come in tomorrow and check into Ward 3 and I’ll do some work on your eyelids in the morning.’ [slight laugh] And from then on it was just a matter of recurrent operations and recovery time, and I applied to get in to Liverpool Medical School and was successful, and I started at Medical School in, in September 1947. I was still having operations at that time and, er, I did, I did the five years training, qualified in 1952. So that was five years at Medical School which were pretty wonderful. I, I was living at home. My parents, they’d been bombed out twice during the war. Do you know, in 1941 I was at — I’d been evacuated to Southport and I went home for the weekend, May 1941, and that, that weekend Liverpool was heavily bombed, particularly Bootle with its docks and I was a Rover Scout and I’d, I’d been given the privilege of working in a rescue squad and I went out on duty and, er, had — we went over to houses near the, the South Park, digging people out of bombed houses. I went back to the bunker and there was another call out so I was first, first out of the bunker and there was a scream of bombs, you know, the usual [whistle]. I threw myself flat and there was huge explosions and I was picked up between two bomb craters and I had bomb, er, splinter wounds across my buttocks, and my — one in my leg, and one in my foot and I was sent off to Ormskirk Hospital in a pick-up truck. I spent only ten days there for — while the lacerations healed up. But I thought then — I was, I was eighteen and I, er, I was thinking then deep thoughts about mortality. You know, I, I went camping one, one night in a pop tent [background noise], a camouflaged pop tent, in Lancashire. And I remember lying with my head out up through the, through the flaps of the tent, looking up at the Milky Way and thinking about eternity, and I thought, ‘God in — I’m eighteen. In fifty-two years’ time I’ll be sixty.’ Did I get the calculation right? ‘Well, I’ll be sixty and probably dead.’ And [slight laugh] started thinking about philosophical thoughts of mortality. Anyway, it was wonderful to recover and qualify — I think I got the dates wrong about Medical School. 1941 was the bomb— bombings and I was still at school then. It was 1943 I went to, to the, er, science department in Liverpool. Yeah, my parents had a bad time, you know, with moving house and my, my father pulling out what remained of the carpets and then refitting them in, in the next house and he was wonderful. He’d been, he’d been in the Army in the First World War and he was posted to the North West Frontier of India and, er, he became an interpreter. He could speak Hindi and Pashto and Urdu and, er, I suppose that was my, my inspiration towards a, an Army career. Yes, he survived the — his three years in the, in the Army but he was on quinine for three years and that made him profoundly deaf so he had difficulty getting a job. He was — he got a job as a grocer’s assistant but he was a wonderful chap. He, he was very good on DIY, you know, he used to mend our shoes and he made my Christmas presents. He made me a boat and an aeroplane and all sorts of things. Wonderful, wonderful people in the 1940s. It was — talk about resilience. What my mother must have gone through, you know, with the being bombed out and my injuries. And my daughter, my sister, was in the Army. She, she was, er, posted to Italy with the invasion there. And my brother, my younger brother, he was in the merchant navy at sixteen. He was a, he was a wireless operator on a merchant ship. He was at the beaches on D-Day delivering troops. Yeah, very exciting times. Anyway my, my story is really the Guinea Pig Club. It’s a — the Guinea Pig Club was really the making of me because, you know, there were six, six hundred and forty-nine members who’d, who’d been burned, some of them horrendously. Some of them had — I had twenty-eight operations in my — at the two hospitals but some of them had sixty operations or more and they, they were all cheerful, resilient people and, you know, these were the bravest of the brave and, and being a fellow member was really such a privilege and that’s what, that’s probably what drove me, as I was getting on in life, to propose this memorial to the Club. There’s a big memorial to McIndoe at East Grinstead. It’s an eight foot statue with — which, er, the town had erected and — but that was to McIndoe, the medical services, but I wanted one to the Guinea Pig Club, the Club, its six hundred and forty-nine members to — as a memorial to, to what they went through and the stone mason, the stone mason designed a quite a moving tribute. I was going to pay for it myself but my wife, Maggie, started a campaign, a fund raising campaign and, er, she managed to raise enough money to pay for it. But, er, my — I said in my speech to the Duke of Edinburgh that my intention in, in [pause] arranging the memorial was that as a [pause] it was repayment of a debt of honour really for the, er, medical expertise that had brought me back to health and for the enormous psychological support I got from the other members of the Club, who really altered, altered my attitude and personality and, er, really gave me the ambition to get well again. So, er, that’s my story.
CB: Thank you. Did, um, you, as part of the treatment at East Grinstead, did they have psychiatrists there?
AS: No psychiatrists. There, there was no psychological support at all except from the encouragement of McIndoe who said, ‘I can help you to get back to a normal, normal life, physically.’ And — but it was, it was the members of the Club really. Their attitude was so optimistic and there was black humour, you know, but everyone was cheerful and up — uplifting. You know, I, while I was having my eyes, eyelids grafted you had to lie in bed for, for a couple of weeks with your face covered so you couldn’t see. To one side I had Dinty Moore, who was a bomber pilot, and his story was amazing. He, he took off in a, in a new Halifax and — with a full load of fuel and a full load of bombs bound for Germany and he, er, he found after take-off that he was having difficulty climbing and the flaps had, had stayed down and, and, er, the undercarriage wouldn’t wind up and then the right starboard engine, the starboard outer engine, wouldn’t feather and, and he had to cut, cut the engine, so he had managed to get to two thousand feet and then he had that awful decision, what to do next? So he decided to fly on and ditch in the North Sea. He’d taken off from South Yorkshire somewhere [background noise] but I’ve got this story in print and the, er, outer port engine caught fire and he had very great difficulty maintaining height so he decided that he had to do — he had to land, you know, at night over the fields of Norfolk and in the dark. He had a full load of bombs and fuel. Anyway he landed and the right wing hit a farmhouse and the right side of the fuselage was torn out and the plane was on fire but he managed to get out somehow. And he became a Guinea Pig and went back to a normal life. Christ! All the decisions, all the decisions you have to make. What could be more horrifying than that? Did you see the film about the landing on the, on the river in New York? That —
CB: I’m due to see it soon.
AS: I’ve seen it and, you know, the pilot had a fraction of a second to make a decision whether to go back to the airfield or carry on to the river. Christ! It’s such an enormous responsibility. Anyway it was meeting people like that that, er, really gave me my destiny. I’ve had a wonderful life.
CB: So after medical school what did you do?
AS: I went into, into general practice. I was in hospitals in Liverpool for a year or so as house, house, surgeon, house physician and, er, one of the — the chap who was the — he was a physician at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Birmingham who, who befriended me and he telephoned me to say there was a General Practice job going in Nottingham, was I interested? Well I was quite open minded about what career I should take at that stage. And I went to Nottingham and had an interview with the Practice and they took me on as an assistant with a view — and from there I went on to another — I didn’t get that Practice so through the, er, through the Family Practitioner Committee I, I got a chance of another Practice and I was there for forty years. Amazing. But it was a career that I thoroughly enjoyed. Of course, I had to practice for the sense of dedication and, er, it was a great advantage to me because I really enjoyed doing, doing the work. God, it was hard work. It was like “Call the Midwife” stuff, you know. We booked a hundred women a year for home confinement. I did all the work, you know. If a patient needed a blood test you just got out a syringe and did it on the spot. And, er, if they needed any other examinations you felt you had to do it yourself. It was really — I didn’t have any staff. It was me and my fountain pen. It was a partnership of three with an elderly, elderly man at the head and he eventually retired and he offered me the sale of his house and I — then I went through various life crises, you know, the mid-life crisis and the marriage folded up and — but I battled on and [pause] yes, it’s amazing how life experience affects your person— personality and attitudes. And here I am at ninety-four, quite content with life, wonderful wife.
CB: Where did you meet Maggie?
AS: Over a bridge table. My second marriage folded up, er, in 2000. I, I’d been living apart from my wife in the same house but she was playing up with other men and I eventually divorced and, and I settled here, next door actually. I got it, I got it through a house agency in Melton Mowbray. I was living there with my dog for the next ten years and then I used to have a, a bridge group on Wednesday evenings. They were all women and, er, Maggie was one of them. She was married and had children and I’d, I’d already decided never to have anything to do with women again after my second marriage experience. And I was living there quite happily and Maggie’s husband died about nine years ago and I realised that I was living apart, she was living apart and we kind of chummed up and the — it became quite intense and we married seven, seven years ago, and then the lady here died and I bought this house and this, this is the ultimate in down-sizing [slight laugh]. You know, doctors usually have big houses and I had a farm house with my second wife, with big farm house and a few acres, and we ran horses for her children. We were quite happy there until she started playing up and — but I’ve been happy here. It’s a tiny, tiny bungalow but it’s just, just idyllic.
CB: You don’t need a lot of space do you?
AS: Well it’s ideal for elderly people to have very little. You can only sit in one chair at a time and [slight laugh] three meals a day and wonderful entertainment from TV and —
CB: How many children have you got?
AS: I’ve got — I had three. I’ve got two, two now. Angela, my younger daughter, she studied medicine at Southampton and she, she was a GP and she was a medical officer of a hospice in Somerset, Yeovil, and she developed a, a sarcoma in her pelvis and in four weeks, five weeks she was dead.
CB: Was she?
AS: Yeah, and she was nursed in her own hospice. That was a dreadful time to go through.
CB: How old was she?
AS: Fifty-two. Yeah, and I suppose it was her death that, um, prompted Maggie and I to decide on marriage. So, er, we’ve been very very happy. My dog died and — yeah, me and my dog next door, I thought that was wonderful and, you know, when I was eighty I thought, ‘I’m getting on in my life and I’m alone with my dog.’ And [cough] I decided — sailing was my hobby. I had a boat [cough] and I sailed it round from its base at Woolverstone on the River Orwell and I sailed it round to Falmouth and I used to go off cruising, um, with a friend and we sailed down it down to the Marbella [?] and Bay of Biscay and [cough] all over the place and I sailed all the North Sea, you know, Germany and Holland and Belgium and all over the place for years and, er, when I was in my late seventies I decided that my ambition was to do the Atlantic crossing so I got a crew job on a, on a Westerly Ocean, Ocean Wanderer and I got into the North Sea Race in November 2002. Yes, I was eighty. I had my eightieth birthday halfway across. We went across from Gran Canaria over to St Lucia and I flew back and continued my life with my dog. And then, do you know, when I was eighty-four I thought, ‘God I’m really old now. I’d better make arrangement for my funeral.’ So I bought, bought a grave at the — in a churchyard a hundred yards up the hill there and made arrangements and then, er, Maggie came along.
CB: Your salvation.
AS: Yes?
CB: Your salvation.
AS: My salvation. I’ve had an incredible, incredible happy life. It’s been wonderful.
CB: What about your other two children?
AS: My, my son became a doctor. He was a GP but he fell foul of, er, drugs. He went onto opiates while he still a doctor and I think he’d some experience with a dying patient, you know, and I think he had some mental aberration. He went onto morphia himself and eventually ended up in a court case and then after an interval I got him a job in — with one of my ex-trainees in Nottingham. And from drugs he went onto drink and he became a, an alcoholic and he also lost his job and had court cases and driving offences and all sorts and, er, the day before we married I rang him to see if he could get to the funeral. I’d, I’d paid for therapy for him on several occasions but he always relapsed and he — the turning point for him was my daughter’s death. He, er, he came down to — by train to Somerset to the funeral and he was living in a hostel at that time, a hostel where they did a breathalyser test every evening and, er, if you, if you didn’t pass the breathalyser you were chucked out. Anyway he came down and Maggie and I took him to the station in, in Somerset to get him back to Derby and, er, he must, he must have, with his daughter’s, his sister’s death it must have affected him, and so he had a drink and when he got the hostel he was over the limit and they chucked him out. So he was on the streets and eventually he got a flat in Nottingham and was living rock bottom and the day before the funeral I visited him and he was damn near dead, you know. He’d had a couple of bottles of vodka that morning and he was living in dis— disgusting disorder and I got him into the alcoholic unit at Nottingham the next day which was, which was the day of our wedding. And, er, they took him in and he hasn’t had a drink ever since.
CB: That’s good.
AS: That was the turning point. He was rock bottom and he had a few weeks of cold turkey and therapy and, er, he’s been improving ever since. He’s given up smoking and last year we went to his wedding and — he hasn’t worked. He’s a house husband but he’s much, much better.
CB: And, er, number three?
AS: Number three. My, my daughter. My elder, she, she was born in 1952, the year I qualified and, er, she’s been more or less an invalid all her life. She had, she had bilateral CDH and she had some horrendous operations during her childhood and, er, up to the age of twenty-one, when she had a [unclear] osteoplasty and she’s had both hips replaced, replaced in her fifties. She’s OK. She has a degree in art. Never worked. She married and — to a chap who had a teaching diploma but he, he’s never had a settled job and they live in very poor circumstances in Nottingham. They had one boy, who’s my grandson, and I now have two great grandchildren. They came here on Saturday and — because I’m not well and I’m in close contact with them. My son rings me every day or every other day and we’re all attuned. They — I, with my, with my huge divorce settlements I’ve never been able to accumulate enough money but I had enough to buy this place and Maggie’s got her pension and so she’ll be alright.
CB: What did Maggie do when she was working?
AS: She was a head teacher and she was a senior magistrate. She was chairman of the Melton Mowbray and Rutland bench. And she retired at seventy. She’s seventy-five now and so this place is ideal, ideal for her. It’s easily run. It’s got a modest garden and she likes the gardening. She’s been doing the lawn mowing for the last year. I haven’t been able to do much.
CB: You mentioned the extraordinary inspiration, er, from your bedfellow and, er, I just wonder what it is that — we’re talking about Dinty —
AS: Dinty Moore.
CB: Yes. What it is it that gives people the extraordinary positive focus in times of desperate straits?
AS: I don’t know but it does wash over you. You have these extraordinary cheerful men. Some of them were horrendously disfigured. They’d walk about the town with pitiful grafts, you know, between their arm and their, and their face and, and, er, they’d be jokey and upbeat all the time. They, they enjoyed laughing and there was a barrel of beer on the ward encouraged by McIndoe. He said, ‘It’s a very good idea to keep the men hydrated.’ [laugh]
CB: And in most cases in the early days of surgery then the view of the people must have been fairly challenging. What was the reaction of women particularly to men with this disfigurement?
AS: That’s extraordinary. Some of the, um, Guinea Pigs have written books and in, in one the reaction of his wife when, when he came back from East Grinstead was that she couldn’t stand to be touched by him because his hands were knobbly, you know, and — but when I got back to Liverpool I had been engaged to a girl and — but that folded up. Yes and, er, I think reactions were variable and yet many Guinea Pigs married their nurses.
CB: Did they?
AS: And quite recently, as recently as November, December, during the course of this documentary I was doing for the BBC, they took me down to East Grinstead and we met a present-day patient on — an Army, um, plastic surgeon and he was very very badly disfigured. He had very serious burns and he still had a lot of facial scaring and unevenness and he had a wife who’d met him as a patient and, and she’d fallen for him. Isn’t that extraordinary? But on one hand women couldn’t tol— tolerate the disfigurement but this girl had actually been attracted to a man who was disfigured. I think, I think the personality of the injured person comes over somehow and it’s the personality that matters to a sincere woman.
CB: Is there any history of how people progressed after they finished their treatment in terms of settling down with a family? In other words, did they all marry or —
AS: Yes, well I haven’t got the statistics but most, most of the Guinea Pigs became happy married family men.
CB: And from a medical perspective we have these, for some people, horrific views of the immediate aftermath of the initial surgery and then a progression but how does the body assimilate these extraordinary changes with some of the fabric of the skin coming from areas that aren’t normally exposed to the light?
AS: Well my legs were grafted and they — I regained full function really accept that I can’t squat, I can’t bend my knee back fully. I, I think the, er, treatment I got at the first hospital — I had a years’ treatment there — it wasn’t really, er, up to modern standards. The, the tightening of the grafts over these stopped me bending my knees but I had physiotherapy but it was only for a, er, a few weeks I think and I’ve never been able to regain my full, full flection, um, but that’s no handicap and I’ve been able to leap about the deck of a boat and I’ve been able to ski. I was skiing until I was eighty-two and, er, I’ve never been a runner but I’ve been a walker. I used to go trekking in the Himalayas and for years I carried on with a trekking group. I went as trek doctor and, and it was a wonderful time of my life. That was in my seven— sixties and seventies. And I’ve been trekking with Maggie in Italy, er, on the Amalfi coast and that involved quite a lot of energetic walk— hill walking.
CB: So what’s the secret to your long and active life?
AS: The secret? I think its attitude really, um, you get on with things [laugh] doing your best. Do you know, I used to march in the, in the, er, Armistice Day parade? And, er, I once went to the, to the Horse Guards Parade. I was — I’d travelled, travelled down the night before and I got to the parade ground quite early about 9 o’clock and I went to the, um, the van where they had the, the, signs where you’re supposed to stand and I got a — my stick with a label on it and I went over to the parade ground to my spot, in a row of seats, 3 of something, and I was standing there and a few Guinea Pigs joined me, and then two or three and then — oh, there were five of us. I was standing there and a chap with a bowler hat came along and, er, he was obviously ex – RSM and he said, ‘Now Sir, I want you to place your stick on that sycamore leaf and stand there and line up in rows of six.’ So I said, ‘But there’s only five of us.’ He said, ‘Well do you best Sir.’ [laugh] I think that’s, that’s a good maxim to go by, do your best, yeah. Well —
CB: In your perception, your experience and perception, you have a number of people who all have had a disability because of fire, for various reasons, to what extent did they compare notes as to how they got them?
AS: Well we didn’t really talk about it very much. I think we — my conversation with Dinty Moore in the next bed kind of thing. But we, we heard about things and of course all the books written by Guinea Pigs, the — Richard Hillary was the first, wasn’t he? And, er, he described things very well.
CB: Geoffrey Page, various people.
AS: Geoffrey Page. Yes, yes but just knowing these people, sitting in the same room, you know, sitting at the same table at dinner, was wonderful inspiration.
CB: Do you think that somehow this personality and jovial approach was developed by the difficult situation?
AS: I think it was. Yes, making the best of things seemed to be the order of the day. And of course these, these were men of twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two and, you know, they were all full of hormones and, er, they had a drink ethic and very parlast [?]
CB: Supported by attractive nurses were they?
AS: Yes, well McIndoe’s policy was to, to, er, encourage a social intercourse with other people and of course talking to young women was far easier for young men.
CB: You talked about one of your early relationships going wrong. How had you met in the first place there?
AS: Well that probably went wrong because, er, I was at, at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Birmingham and one of the nurses who was looking after me in quite an intimate way, you know, ‘cause I was quite helpless. My hands were in bandages, my legs were in bandages, my head was in bandages so you had to be looked after, for hygiene and all the rest of it, and I suppose I developed a, an emotional connection with my first wife. She became my first wife.
CB: She was a nurse? Right.
AS: She was a nurse and yes —
CB: She knew —
AS: She, er, had a nice family. Her mother and father were teachers in Bourneville and she used to take me there for meals and she used to wheel me, wheel me to the cinema in Selly Oak in a wheel chair and look after me generally so, er, there was an emotional development and —
CB: And was there a second wife?
AS: We eventually married in 1949.
CB: Right.
AS: Yeah.
CB: Was your second wife a nurse?
AS: Oh, my second wife was following several life crises.
CB: In the medical sense you are all, one way or another, severely injured by fire. But you talked about your legs being burnt so you’re affected because your skin was taken from your legs, is it? So that’s why —
AS: I had skin taken from the upper legs and buttocks and, er, my eyelids came from the inner upper arm, yeah, the hairless part, and the nose came from my chest, yeah.
CB: So was the nose completely rebuilt underneath as well, from a bone point of view?
AS: No the cartilages were alright, yes.
CB: OK. So there are certain parts of the anatomy that give up the skin for particular spots more commonly, do they? In other words the upper arm for eyelids.
AS: Yes, that’s right. It’s chosen to be appropriate. I don’t grow a beard which is unconscious really.
CB: So what was the damage initially? You hadn’t got goggles on?
AS: No. They must have been knocked off, yeah.
CB: Did it affect your ears as well?
AS: No, no, I had a helmet. Yes, that saved my scalp and I’ve still got hair.
CB: Yeah. And then —
AS: Some of the Guinea Pigs did lose their ears and scalp.
CB: And arms, hands, were hands. Were they affected?
AS: I was wearing gloves but I had first and second degree burns to my hands and wrists but they were back to normal function within six months. Yes, first and second degree burns survived without grafting. You get blistering and so on but it was —
CB: What was the reaction of people at medical school to your circumstances?
AS: Yes that’s rather curious because it was twenty years after I, after I qualified that we had a reunion and one of the, one of the, er, my ex-student colleagues, a lady, came to me and said, ‘Sandy, I just want to apologise to you because it’s been something that’s been on my mind, ever since doing second MB. We were in the dissection room and Professor Wood had allocated us to do head and neck.’ And, er, I had my lower eyelids, er, grafted about two weeks before and I still looked pretty hideous, you know. Anyway she said, ‘In the dissection room you were, you were lifting the skin from the malar area and I looked at you and looked at the corpse and I had to go out to the ladies and actually physically vomit. I was so, so deeply affected.’ She said, ‘I just want to apologise to you now.’ Isn’t that strange? It’s — I can understand her feelings. I shouldn’t have been there really.
CB: You should have been resting.
AS: Until I was presentable. But reactions in people to disfigurement is quite extraordinary. It’s much better nowadays I think. There’s a lady appears on TV now doing the weather report with, with part of an arm. Quite openly she’s had an amputation and it’s marvellous that people are now — and through, through the armed forces amputations and things they, they’ve become — they have a much better attitude but at one time people were revulsed [emphasis] by physical disfigurement, particularly facial, and I used to try and hide my face in the first year or two.
CB: Did that mean that you didn’t get involved socially very much?
AS: Well, well, um, I was rather defensive about it. I remember when I, when I had my eyelids done I had to travel back to Liverpool from Sussex and I arranged a felt mask [laugh] like the Phantom of the Opera, you know, which I stuck round my glasses to hide the scars. Yeah, the Phantom of the Opera is a comparison.
CB: Yes, well, inspired by these sorts of things.
AS: Yes, well that was written in, in the days before acceptance of disfigurement.
CB: Did you get the feeling that a lot of people stared?
AB: Yes, yes. In fact, East Grinstead, through McIndoe’s influence, became known as the town that didn’t stare.
CB: Because they’d been programmed by the hospital—
AB: Yes, they’d been programmed. McIndoe used to go round the bars and the dance hall and the cinemas and say to people, ‘Please accept these patients as normal. It’s very important to be able to talk to people without feeling embarrassed.’
CB: And in medical school one has a huge curiosity for medicine and everything associated with it so did your experience come up as a student with other students?
AS: I never, never really noticed. I didn’t think about it. I developed a great friendship with Sid Watkins. He was a brilliant student, got a First in everything, and, and he became, um, the Professor of Neurosurgery at the London Hospital and, er, Bernie Ecclestone picked him up and appointed him as the



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Sandy Saunders,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 18, 2024,

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