Childhood illness and death in the 19th and 21st centuries

This story comes from a personal place. One that reaches back into the past to empathise completely with the pain and heartache felt by parents facing children who are gravely ill. You see my son Rowan has been in hospital this past week, having complex procedures on his heart. The parents on St Helena would have faced their children’s illnesses with the same blend of fear, determination and constant vigilance. The difference between us is that I have a world of medical expertise,  technology and medicines backing me up and I can do something for my son.

Rowan hospital
21st century skill and technology and Rowan’s strong, steel will has allowed him to survive and thrive.

Having an ill child means that it is all taken out of your hands. You hand over control to those with more medical knowledge and skill. You take instruction from everybody and follow it to the letter. You wait and wait as time is completely taken out of your hands and you have no control over what happens when. You watch your child struggling and while you can offer comfort, love and companionship, you can’t take any of the pain, fear and frustration away. You do everything you can and you still want to do more.

Control is something we arrogantly expect in today’s 21st century society. We like to think we can plan our futures, control present circumstances, lessen the negatives and strive for the solutions we desire. It’s all possible today. Yet I have met many heart kid parents who have lost their child because no more could be done. I met one last week who was told after many years that there were no more solutions to saving her son. How can anyone face that? To know that as a mother you can’t do any more. For us today we believe there’s always a solution and we push until we find it. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-22 at 6.02.00 pm
Today’s Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne is a world unto itself, housing the latest and greatest in patient treatment and care.

I’m so lucky and so grateful for what we’ve received. Doctors told us that if my son was born 10 years earlier, there would not have been the technology and medicines around to help him. If he was not born in Australia but a country with less advanced technology, he would not be here today. We have a public hospital system and I have employment that allows us to afford his complex medical needs. I can’t comprehend the idea that my son would not be able to get the help he needs because its unaffordable. We have doctors here of the highest calibre that mean that my bionic son can have major reconstructions of his heart and the addition of 5 artificial pieces and it’s still ticking.

12 a Bell 05 1916 Hospital and surgery
St Helena Penal Establishment’s 12 bed hospital, which also contained a waiting room for the Visiting Surgeon and a dispensary. This was not a place for women and children to access as it was inside the prison stockade. Photo Mary Bell Collection, in approx. the 1920’s.

I’m projecting back then to if I was living in the 1870’s to the 1890’s in Australia. To when my son would not have survived if he had been born on St Helena Island in Moreton Bay in the latter half of the 19th century. So many children were born on the island at this time and what’s amazing is that we have no real idea of how many. This is a future project for me as my ‘potential’ list at this stage is over 80 children and that’s a decent amount of births! This means that many mothers living in Warder’s Row on the island faced childbirth in their homes, with the attendance of neighbours. Pain management was unheard of. Complications were dealt with through past experiences and common sense and probably a lot of prayer.

And it means that many children faced death if they came into the world needing some medical support to allow them to thrive and survive. There hospital on the island was within the prison and could tend to mothers and babies. A doctor, the Visiting Surgeon, came over routinely once a week and if called over for an emergency had to travel many miles and many hours before arriving by the bedside of a sick or dying child on the island. His medical treatment would have been the best he could offer using natural remedies, a small bag of medicines and whatever expertise he had to offer. 

Both prisoners and warders’ families were examined and treated by the Visiting Surgeon, and during his absence medicines were dispensed day and night by the Chief Warder or a Warder / Dispenser, who lacked any medical training but dished out remedies with practical experience, common sense and a dose of ingenuity.   I admire Warder Dispensers John B. North and Charles Henrey for stoically facing all manner of illness and trying to help their patients with the barest of equipment and the simplest traditional remedies.

Medicine cabinet
Medicine cabinet with original medicine bottles, St Helena Island museum.

Here’s some examples of the medial treatment of St Helena Island in 1895: 

January 6th: Prisoner Range was very low and had violent pains in his stomach. Gave him a colick (sic) draught with 26 drops of laudanum. Hot stipes all night and day. Superintendent wired Dr Wray. Dr Wray ordered beef tea 3 times daily.

I gave Prisoner Hermann a dose of quinine and rubbed his gums with Laudenum.

January 9th: Gave J. Walsh rhubarb and castor oil for pains in stomach.

February 17th: Prisoner Connelly sick with cramp and retching. To hospital (on island) and given hot stipes. Prisoner Smyth’s finger had poultice with millet seed mead.

July 24th: James Daldry locked up sick at 8:45am. Complained of a pain in his head and in left breast and very shaky. Got his feet washed in hot water. His temp was 100.4.

When a man is sick and getting well he is given bread, rice, sugar, arrowroot, oatmeal and sago.

The timing of my son’s hospitalisation has eerily synchronised with some research I have been conducting, namely the investigation of deaths and burials of children on St Helena Island. More infants died on this island than we have realised, and it is at this time, sitting in a hospital with my ill son that the magnitude of facing serious illness and death alone, without specialised help, is magnified. I’m fascinated by the psychology and emotional turmoil faced by the parents on St Helena as they watched their children die. The sense of hopelessness that must have been felt in their hearts. The desperate faith in the Visiting Surgeon and in God. Sitting endlessly next to a bedside with hope and fear in equal measure. The feeling of a complete lack of control over your life. How someone manages to accept that no more can be done and accepts their death when it happens. It’s something that I’ve not had to deal with and for that I’m forever grateful.

Grave of Charlotte Hore in the Warders’ Children’s cemetery on St Helena Island.

My Warders’ Children’s Cemetery research discoveries double the size of the Warder’s Childrens’ Cemetery as we know it today as I have uncovered 8 new deaths and 6 new burials. I’ll be putting up some information on the Children’s cemetery and my new discoveries in the coming weeks, so please keep an eye out for it. I’d like to pay tribute to all the families who suffered loss by remembering these children. They remain on St Helena Island today, long after the time when their family moved on to new places and new lives, knowing that one of their family members was missing. 

Childrens cemetery sign
When I wrote this sign, we knew of these 7 deaths and burials. 2018 research has meant that it will need some updating! 

3 thoughts on “Childhood illness and death in the 19th and 21st centuries

  1. Dear Belinda, Well this one certainly came from the heart, and tugged on the heart-strings! Life can be so very fickle: what era we are born into, and in which place, and how healthy (or not) we are when we emerge into the world. But despite all that you (and Rowan) have been through, I am glad that you still maintain a strong sense of gratitude. I think this is what gives a life its richness and resilience, in the face of great suffering. Well done!

    1. Hi Paula. You know what a journey we’ve been on over these many years! But I agree that the life we lead becomes ours randomly and that so many elements – time, place, family, culture, race and health – become the foundation of our lives regardless of our preferences. I love the human spirit that continues to play the hand that is dealt with grit and resilience when needed, and humour and joy whenever possible!

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