I’m definitely not trying to do like Martin does and review shows, but sometimes the series I watch make me want to write about them. Recently I binge-watched “Call The Midwife.” I watched an episode during my recent insomnia, although I was sure it wouldn’t appeal to me, since I’m not really interested in babies and childbirth. I got hooked for a lot of other reasons.
The show is set in a London district in the late 1950s, focusing on a midwife/nurse center serving the community. (Show is based on the memoir of one of the nurses.) All the women living there are district nurses, and about half are Anglican nuns. The house is the convent, and any of the non-nun nurses are permitted to live there if they wish, so most of them do. Their midwife services are needed constantly, day and night, because this is during the baby boom and also abortion was illegal. The nurses, who do home visits, also treat all kinds of general medical cases. They ride bicycles to get to their patients.
The neighborhood is a poor area, the buildings are very old, and has pockets of bombed or abandoned buildings from WWII that no one has been interested in enough to rebuild yet. Politicians are apparently spending the money in “nicer” districts.
Because of the time period, a few of their patients in the neighborhood actually had lived for a while in the old workhouses, before that system was closed for good. The workhouse system was designed to be punitive, one of the nurses tells the younger ones. People surrendered their rights when they entered, even parents lost rights to their kids. They had to labor hard while there, and were made to feel shame for being there at all. Each workhouse survivor the nurses encounter is shown to have been mentally damaged by it.
The workhouse people sound to me a lot like detained immigrants here.
In one episode, the nurses start trying to care for a little old woman — a workhouse survivor — who now wanders the streets in rags and is almost feral. She shows institutional behaviors, like the “workhouse howl,” which the stunned nurses hear from the street after leaving the woman’s flat for the morning. The person just howls like a huskie dog. It’s wonderful how they show her transform under their care.
I think I especially like the extreme sense of duty the people all demonstrate — the nuns, nurses, the doctor — and the strength of the community.
The workhouse thing interested me and reminded me of some of the big old warehouse-type institutions for the handicapped here. In the 1970s there was a move to get people out of institutional living and into small group homes or apartments of their own in the community. Many years ago I worked taking care of these adults, some had once lived in an institution, others had lived with their parents, until being accepted into this independent living program — in apartments in regular community life. The place I worked was taking in extremely handicapped adults, which was new at the time. Some of our residents had lived in Polk or another of the big, old institutions in surrounding counties. A lot of the time, you could tell which ones had grown up in the institution and which had had a life living at home with family. Family life usually made for better socialization.
As counselors we discussed all kinds of institutional behaviors we noticed. But not having ever worked in one, we tended to blame those big old places for a lot more than was true.
For example, a number of the women we cared for had these little white scar-like marks on their hands and forearms. The staff puzzled over these. We wondered if they could be old rat-bites. We were aware that one of the female residents had a really sad childhood background (which she had no memory of whatsoever) where she had been used by her parents as a human shield in a bank robbery (her parents were the robbers) and then abandoned in an alley, where she’d been found with rats on her. So we thought these white scars on that lady’s hands were the old rat-bite scars, and maybe the other women had been bitten at some point too at an institution.
Now I know better. Tiny white scars, including ones like straight lines, on the hands is just a type of skin formation — I don’t remember the name of it — that might or might not be from a cut or scratch, and is more likely to be seen on people of fairer, more delicate skin types. They’re harmless and have nothing to do with abuse or neglect, or rodents.
It took a few years before I got to understand how much was accomplished in the old institutions. One of the men I worked with was in a wheelchair, mentally retarded (am I supposed to use another term, now? developmentally disabled, maybe?) and had severe cerebral palsy which made his movements very abrupt, jerky, and hard to control. But he could feed, bathe, shave and do most personal care of himself. I found out it had taken him to about age 30 before he could do this, including feeding himself. That meant people back at Polk had worked with him incessantly, day after day, until he got it.