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The burned aviator, the star and the surgeon

Sometimes we don't see what a difference we can make, or how the smallest actions count.

During the Battle of Britain Mavis Beazley (later Lady Coulson) worked as a nurse with Archie McIndoe's burns unit at East Grinstead hospital, where many of the patients were badly burned airmen.

Mavis later recalled: "On the ward you quickly understood that not only was any kind of pity ruled out, but revulsion too. Nor was it acceptable to pretend to ignore a man's often hideous appearance. To get it right, in fact, was far from easy, and the sensitive were apt to find themselves becoming too hard, in self-protection."

She remembered in particular a 19-year-old pilot officer who was visited by his 16-year-old financée; on seeing his face, she burst into tears and broke off the engagement.

The airman turned his face to the wall and "proceeded to die slowly". Some weeks later the singer Frances Day came to the hospital on a morale-boosting visit, and McIndoe asked her to pay particular attention to the "dying" man. She did so, and he instantly began to improve again.

Then there is the difference that a person makes after years of perfecting his skills -

Sir Archibald McIndoe CBE FRCS was the pioneering New Zealand plastic surgeon who pursued his career in London in the 1930s and worked with the Royal Air Force during World War II.

At the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, McIndoe treated deep burns and serious facial disfigurement. He was a brilliant and quick surgeon. He not only developed new techniques for treating badly burned faces and hands but also recognised the importance of the rehabilitation of the casualties and particularly of social reintegration back into normal life.

McIndoe referred to his patients as "his boys"; the boys jokingly referred to themselves as the "Guinea Pig Club". McIndoe fine-tuned the walking-stalk skin graft, which had been invented by Harold Gillies, and discovered that immersion in saline promoted healing as well as improving survival rates.

After the war McIndoe moved to Kenya, farmed on Kilimanjaro and helped to establish the African Medical and Research Foundation, AMREF. He died in his sleep in 1960 and is buried at the Royal Air Force church of St Clement Danes. A research centre and a burns unit are named after him.

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