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Medical Units of 2 NZEF in Middle East and Italy

3 General Hospital Moves to Syria

3 General Hospital Moves to Syria

In May 1942—the second year of its service overseas—3 General Hospital, under Col Gower, left behind the hospital it had completed in the sand at Helmieh to journey to Syria. Before its departure a plaque of the unit's insignia and motto—a tiki surmounting ‘Kia Kaha’, artistically designed in green and red—was cast and set prominently in the lawn beneath the flagpole, an enduring testimony to the unit's stay in the garrison.

It is not a simple matter to move a complete hospital, lock, stock and barrel, from one country to another. As each tent and hut was emptied, its contents were stacked in orderly piles in the hospital grounds. As Sister Somers-Cocks6 described it:

‘Great heaps of dismantled beds lay stacked to the sky; stoves, heaters, brooms, jugs, bedpans, forms, tables, chairs, case upon case—tightly packed; endless bales of blankets, sheets, pyjamas, and page 202 hospital linen; hundreds of mattresses, thousands of pillows; mosquito nets, medical stores, pots and pans and all cooking utensils; X-ray and massage equipment, theatre tables and trolleys. The list is endless. If the amount of stuff seemed incredible, the possibility of moving it all to another country and putting it all in place again seemed more so.

‘Most of the equipment went by train, and this entailed loading on to trucks, off-loading on to the train, guarding it on the train, and unloading on to trucks again to go to the new site. Some of the equipment went by road, a long, unwieldy convoy taking several days and nights.

‘The new site—Choukri Ghanum, on the slopes of the Lebanons, overlooking Beirut—was far from being complete and ready to receive a hospital. Some roads had been made and the main buildings were there, but roadmakers, plumbers, and carpenters were there by the score. Concrete mixers scraped all day, the road roller rumbled up and down, workmen jabbered and spat unceasingly. The din was indescribable.

‘Each department of the hospital had to find a new home—kitchen, ordnance, linen store, medical store and dispensary, X-ray, massage, theatre, laboratory, and office. In the new wards tired and weary orderlies, who had been working night and day during the shift, seemed to find new life—they hammered beds together and fetched and carried. Sisters and VADs swept, mopped, and scrubbed. Equipment arrived in dribs and drabs. In spite of weary limbs everyone was cheerful. On the third day the first patient was admitted—the first of a steady stream. Less than a fortnight had elapsed between the discharge of the last patients in Egypt and the admission of the first in Syria.’

On 30 May the sisters and nurses had journeyed by train and bus to rejoin the male members of the staff who had preceded them to Choukri Ghanum. On a splendid site in the hills, the hospital buildings consisted of a former French barracks, part of a mental hospital, and several stone huts which were built for wards.

The area used for the hospital was extensive, having a frontage of about three-quarters of a mile. The surgical block was at one end and medical at the other, with staff quarters in between. This meant having a reception desk, hospital office, laboratory, cookhouse, etc., in both blocks.

The main route to the Lebanons, Damascus, and Aleppo passed the sisters' mess and hospital, and for a while the country seemed full of the noise of passing traffic. The constant stream had its page 203 blessings; it was in Syria that these sisters first acquired the art of hitch-hiking.

The French barracks, which housed the surgical block, were solid concrete buildings, single-storied and rather attractive; long and wide, they were whitewashed in cream and terracotta. They were in groups of two, three, or four, and held thirty to thirty-two beds. For administration purposes three or four wards formed a block under the supervision of a charge sister, with a sister and/or nurse and orderly to each ward. Between every two wards was a small kitchen, duty room, and sluice room. Each ward had two toilet rooms, with one bath and shower.

The wards were airy and light, with plenty of shuttered windows and doors opening on to full-length verandahs on both sides. These verandahs were ideal for convalescent patients. Electric fans helped to keep the wards cool and fresh during the heat of the summer. The high humidity of the Syrian atmosphere made the heat outside more trying than in Egypt, though temperatures were not as high.

The sisters' quarters were stone huts, facing the sea, with rooms shared by two. Whitewashed, with wall shelves and recesses for wardrobes, they were really comfortable, though the blackout brought its trials during the summer. Hot water for showers was available for four hours daily, while a boiler outside the kitchen provided hot water for laundry purposes. Syrian girls were employed as maids, and with a little training proved very good and a great help.

The medical block in the permanent hospital buildings had a sewerage system—an advantage with the numbers of dysentery and typhoid cases nursed there. These main buildings were much cooler than the stone huts which completed the medical block, though the huts were well planned and very convenient to work in. Each hut held sixty to eighty patients and was complete with kitchen, duty room, etc. All these huts were not completed when the unit arrived. From the day the hospital opened the overwhelming influx of patients made business extremely brisk, so there was little time to add frills. As soon as a hut was completed beds and equipment would arrive, and after a few hours' work the ward was ready to receive patients. It was strenuous work in the heat, and it seemed that just as the last bed in the hospital was filled another ward would be finished in time to save the situation.

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With the onset of summer came malaria, sandfly fever, dysentery, tape-worm, gastric upsets, typhoid fever, and the usual infectious diseases, keeping Lt-Col J. D. Cottrell7 and his assistants busy.

Patients' nationalities were varied. There was some disappointment when the Division moved away and the staff found they had to care for a variety of patients, drawn from almost all the Allied countries. But, in retrospect, all felt it was good experience—it broadened the outlook, making all more tolerant of the characteristics of other peoples, and provided experience that could prove useful in after years.

Tommies were grand patients, courageous, cheerful, and grateful for the smallest nursing attention; they helped their fellow patients and were very willing workers in ward fatigues, doing dishes, serving meals, helping with the cleaning of wards, and making tea or cocoa for Sister's supper while she wrote the evening report. Other patients were Indians, Basutos, Trans-Jordan Frontier Force men, Greeks, and Poles, all rather difficult to look after because of language differences.