Dr Ludwig Guttmann started work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944, where he faced the possibility of receiving large numbers of wounded soldiers. But in many ways that was the least of his worries.
'"It is amazing to think that not that many years ago the treatment of paraplegics was generally regarded as a waste of time."'HRH Prince Charles writing in the foreword of ‘Spirit of Stoke Mandeville’ by Susan Goodman (Collins, 1986)
He could deal with the medical issues. A far bigger concern was how to overcome the widely held belief, both within the medical profession and among the public, that patients, once they had been paralysed, faced a pointless future and could never be reintegrated into society. And because of that his colleagues in the medical profession were baffled by Guttmann’s zeal for his new Stoke Mandeville job.
‘They could not understand how I could leave Oxford University to be engulfed in the hopeless and depressing task of looking after traumatic spinal paraplegics,’ he said. (‘Spirit of Stoke Mandeville’ by Susan Goodman, Collins, 1986).
Guttmann fundamentally disagreed with the commonly held medical view on a paraplegic patient's future and felt it essential to restore hope and self-belief in his patients as well practical re-training so when they were well enough to leave they could once more contribute to society.
He achieved this firstly by changing the way they were treated - he had them moved regularly to avoid the build up of pressure sores and the possibility of urinary tract infections developing - and secondly by engaging them in physical and skill-based activities. Sports like Archery improved their mental wellbeing while learning new skills, such as woodwork, clock and watch repair and typing, would ensure they would be employable. If staff, or patients, on Ward X thought they were going to have an easy time, they were in for a shock.
Guttmann demanded much of those who worked for him. But he gave in equal, or often greater, measure.