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Peggy Seng remembers life before the NHS

06 March 2018

After 70 years of the NHS - it’s hard to imagine not having a wide range of free healthcare services available right at your finger-tips.

But 82 year-old Peggy Seng remembers it well. “Before the NHS was formed we couldn’t afford to go to the doctors”, said Peggy, “so we just didn’t go. People didn’t seem to get so many coughs and colds and if we got things like the chicken pox or the mumps we would just stay at home until we got better”.

Peggy spent her early years living over a butchers shop near Paddington during World War II. Along with many other families, paying to see a doctor was not an option and to add to the hardship, the welfare benefits system had not yet been invented.

Healthcare prior to the war was an unsatisfactory mix of private, municipal and charity schemes. Life in Britain in the 30s and 40s was tough with thousands dying from infectious diseases like pneumonia and meningitis every year. If Peggy or any of her five siblings had become seriously ill they would visit either the school clinic or she would be taken to the community clinic by her mother. It was also standard procedure for the school clinic to shave your head and give you a ‘pixie cap’ to wear until your hair grew back if you were unfortunate enough to catch head lice.

However, Peggy’s recollection of the first time she saw an NHS Doctor after its creation in 1948 was not a prime example of the NHS in action. Peggy was sent home after being told she had indigestion, only to find out later that she was jaundice and needed six weeks off school to recover.

By 1953 the NHS had been making free healthcare available for all for five years, and an unfortunate bicycle accident resulted in 18 year old Peggy slipping a disc. After refusing an NHS full body plaster cast, she remained in a corset for the next six months while she recovered and received treatment. 

At 25 she moved to Luton, and in 1978 she started her career in the NHS, where she dedicated the next forty years of her life. During that time she joined the admin team for the maternity unit, shared responsibility for patient’s pensions and benefits in the psychiatric unit, and had financial responsibility at St Mary's for the Community and District Hospitals.

In 1990 she received a call from personnel saying they had the perfect job for her - setting up first ever NHS-run limb fitting centre in Luton. Until that time the Civil Service had always managed the centres.

Peggy knew nothing about amputees or prosthetics, and after accepting the role, was given three days at the centre in Addenbrooks Hospital, to find out what was required to create the new limb fitting centre in Luton.

Even though Peggy was creating the centre from ‘scratch’, against all the odds, the centre was opening complete with work-shops to make casts and socket moulds, fitting rooms and physio areas just six weeks later. Two days before opening 1,000 paper patient records arrived at the door after being transported to the new limb fitting centre from neighbouring centres at Stanmore and Addenbrooks ready for combining, collating and putting in alphabetical order. “We didn’t even have any filing cabinets so we were literally living out of boxes”, says Peggy. 

She then smiled to herself as she recalled: “I remember answering a telephone call from a gentleman when the centre first opened who started the conversation with ‘I wonder if you could help me – my foot’s come off’? And another time someone sent me a prosthetic finger in the post with a note saying ‘can I have another one just like this one please?’”

Peggy’s limb fitting centre, complete with its three other admin staff and three Prosthetists, together transformed the lives of many people, helping to provide limbs for elderly people with vascular problems, amputees from diabetes, and patients who have had to have emergency or elective amputations. Even though she has now retired, she continues her work at the centre on a volunteer basis one day a week.

So what was Peggy’s response when asked what her best achievement at the NHS is? ‘Surviving forty years’ she replies with a glint in her eyes

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