Pamela Freeman – Women’s History Month

The woman who changed the hospitals

My mother-in-law, Doris Hart, is one of my heroes.

Born in West Bromich, and trained as a teacher because teachers were given scholarships, she married Ben Hart, a divorced man (shock! horror!) in 1951 and followed him to Singapore where he was a teacher at the RAF base.

There my husband was born, and there were problems – he had severe talipes (that is, the feet were twisted inwards) which, after unsuccessful treatment in Singapore, hastened their return to England where he underwent a groundbreaking operation at the age of two.

In those days (1959), if your child went into a hospital, you left. You would be allowed to visit, but not necessarily even every day. Some children’s hospitals only allowed parents to visit on Sundays, because the visits ‘upset the children’. No sitting on the bed, no taking the kids out (even if they were long-term patients), no filling the room with toys and balloons and crayons. No pinning drawings on the wall. You were lucky if you got in for more than an hour.

My husband survived and recovered and eventually the family, including his little sister but not his big one (she had joined the RAF before they left) came to Australia.

And in the 1970s, Doris was one of the founding members and the inaugural National Organiser of the Organisation for the Welfare of Children in Hospital (OWCH – pronounced Orch).

With funding from the Whitlam government, OWCH lobbied for change in hospitals which treated children. Not just children’s hospitals – all of them. Doris went all over Australia, speaking to hospital administrators, women’s groups, anyone who would listen, drumming up support from pediatricians, psychologists, and other specialists, as well as from parents who, as she had, were suffering through separation from their sick children.

It wasn’t easy to convince the matrons and hospital administrators. It seems obvious to us now that kids are better off if they have their family near them; but in those days hospitals were run for the better efficiency of the staff, not the psychological well-being of the patients.

So if you’ve ever sat by the bedside of a sick child in a hospital room; or stayed past visiting hours until your child was asleep, or (as I did once), climb onto your child’s bed so he can snuggle up and be comforted, then thank Doris Hart and the other people from OWCH.

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