As a child I suffered from severe asthma. Leeds, at that time, was a heavily polluted city drenched in soot from factories and domestic coal fires, which was disastrous for people’s health. The result for me was attendance at Junior School below 50% due to continual illness. I was a ‘Never present’. On one remarkable occasion I was at the hospital with a very forthright doctor. He decided to do a ‘Shock and Awe’ piece of advice. This was a bit strong as I was only eight.
He took my mother and I into a male adult ward. It was huge, with two lines of beds filled with coughing and spitting men. The noise was tremendous. In those days beds were close together and they seemed to be very high. My guess is that there were about 20 men in the ward and we had to walk the entire length to reach the ‘exhibition’ room at the far end. There was a lot of calling out for nurses and many of the men tried to attract the attention of the doctor. He ignored them as we marched down the centre of the ward.
Once in the room he sat me down at a small table and picked up a large bottle from one of the shelves. In the bottle was what he called a healthy lung. He turned it round and talked about it, asking me questions all the time. When he was satisfied that I understood, he got another bottle down from the shelf. This was an unhealthy lung. We did the same thing with him checking my understanding all the time. When he was satisfied that I understood the importance of the differences between healthy and unhealthy lungs we went back into the ward.
We stood at the doorway looking down the ward with all the men coughing and spitting. The ones nearest to us looked at me and my mum as curiosities. The doctor took me by the hand and said, ‘All of these men have unhealthy lungs just like the one we saw in the bottle.’
I said, ‘That’s bad isn’t it?’
‘They’ll all be dead in six months,’ he replied.
I didn’t really understand what dead was except in the sense that you weren’t alive. So I said that as this was a hospital and he was a doctor why didn’t he stop them dying.
He said, ‘I can’t do anything because they all smoke and they live in Leeds. If you put together smoking and pollution then you die because your lungs can’t operate. So if you want to make your Mum really unhappy when you get older smoke cigarettes.’
My Mum was almost in tears by this time. He was still holding my hand and still talking and telling me about dying from smoking and pollution.
His final words as we left the ward were, ‘Don’t ever smoke. Go on, promise your Mum right now that you wont smoke. Ever.’
It was all so serious and I was frightened because my Mum was upset. I’d never made a ‘real’ promise before but I did it, ‘I promise.’ And he patted me on the head and we went home.
I’ve never smoked in my life.