“I remember this hospital as small and clean, with nice staff”

The historic building of the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital at 60 Sienna Street, future seat of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum, was used for its intended purpose, i.e. as an institution providing for the needs of small patients, until 2014. We are talking with Dr. Małgorzata Wieczorek, a radiologist who worked there at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s

3 December 2020

When and under what circumstances did you start working in the Provincial Infectious Hospital at 60 Sienna Street?

Immediately after graduation, after much persuasion from my colleague Dr. Michał Elwertowski, I worked in the Department of Nuclear Medicine in the Central Clinical Hospital at Banach Street. There, I learned ultrasonography from him. These were the beginnings of this method. At that time, there were only a few hospitals in Poland that were equipped with ultrasound machines for diagnostic imaging. An embargo on technological equipment was imposed on Poland under the Martial Law and only some resourceful bosses were able to circumvent it. At that time, our plant was probably the only one in Poland that had the machine allowing for simultaneous imaging and Doppler flow testing at its disposal. It was very helpful in assessing, for instance, the function of the liver. The children’s hospital at 60 Sienna Street, did not have an ultrasound laboratory, but it treated children suffering from various types of viral hepatitis. Today it would be impossible, but then – without a formal agreement – several children were brought once a week from the hospital at Sienna to us at Banach street for abdominal ultrasound examinations. First Dr. Elwertowski and then me, we did it without additional remuneration, satisfying our curiosity about inflammatory changes in the liver in children. Sometimes Dr. Maria Gajda accompanied the children. As a result of, let’s say, frictions, the Central Clinical Hospital dismissed Dr. Elwertowski first and then me in 1989. After passing the examination in radiology, on 1 December 1989, I was initially employed as an assistant on a half-time basis, then on a 3/4-time basis, in the ultrasound laboratory of the hospital at Sienna Street, where at first, I worked with Dr. Elwertowski in shifts, and then alone.      

Had you heard about the extraordinary history of this place before you started working there?

Little was said about the ghetto then. I knew that the hospital was built before the war, I knew that it was located within the Warsaw Ghetto, and that it served as a hospital for the insurgents during the Warsaw Uprising.        

What were your first impressions of working in this hospital?

Initially, the ultrasound laboratory was located in a low building next to the main building. The hospital out-patient clinic was also located there. I had no need to go to the main building. I performed ultrasound examinations of children brought to me – in winter they were bundled up so that they could go from one building to the other – and if necessary, I was in telephone contact with their attending doctors. Sometimes doctors accompanied the children if they were interested in the examination. They knew my descriptions from previous years – I think they were glad that the diagnostic tests were carried out on the spot. I really enjoyed going to the hospital at Sienna Street, especially in the summer. I admired the beautiful hollyhocks blooming there, next to the hospital. In 1991, I was on maternity leave for six months. After I returned, I found out that the laboratory had been moved to the main building. It was located on the ground floor, adjacent to department A. I have the impression that the hospital building underwent a major renovation.      

Did you meet any interesting people, competent and professional doctors in the hospital at Sienna Street?

Yes, I had a chance to meet:

prof Jagna Czachorowska – head of the department of neuroinfections. She introduced drainage of pericerebral spaces in children with acute subdural hygroma or developing hydrocephalus – this was the subject of her PhD thesis). She also consulted children from the department of neurosurgery in the Omega Hospital on 57 Jerozolimskie Avenue She was the inspiration for my scientific work.

dr Andrzej Pelc – at the beginning of my work, the head of the diarrhoea department and then the director of the hospital. I remember him as a nice person, who had smoked 40 cigarettes a day until one night he felt heart attack pain, which scared the doctor so much that he gave up smoking overnight without any unpleasant consequences.

dr Oziemska – in my time she worked in a hospital out-patient clinic. We met for a short period of time, between appointments with patients, or when we had to discuss an examination of one of the children. Full of peace and composure, a true professionalist. She impressed me and the nurse working at the clinic, Elżbieta, I don’t remember her name, with her excellent eyesight. She did not wear glasses for reading, even small letters from the phone book, printed on a yellow background and in low light. She claimed that she inherited her father’s eyesight – he did not have to wear glasses for the rest of his life either.

dr Zofia Truchanowicz – she also worked in the clinic in my time. Always smiling, keen on people.

dr Alicja Wiśniewska – a neat, elegant woman. She made an impression on me when she told me that she was leaving the hospital, retiring and going to the USA to marry an American there.

dr Marek Mokrowiecki – he became the director of the hospital after dr Pelc. Handsome, cheerful, witty, very good doctor, with great knowledge and experience.

dr Maria Gajda – I think we met during the examination of children in the hospital at Banacha Street.

dr Danuta Miłkowska – quiet, calm and caring for children.

dr Mirosława Gołębiewska – no-nonsense person, she replaced dr Czachorowska as the head of the department of neuroinfections. She and her department were transferred to the hospital in Dziekanów Leśny. As far as I know, she works there to this day.      

What memories do you have of those several years when you were working in the hospital?

I have very fond memories of my work in the children’s hospital – both as far as my own development is concerned and from an employee performing her duties in a nice environment, with kind and competent people. The work there was developing and rewarding. It was nice to cooperate with professionals knowing that they attach importance to my research results. When my stepdaughter, who was a few years old at the time, was admitted to the department of neuroinfections with encephalitis, I knew that she was safe and in good hands and that she would be treated according to the highest standards. My father was a paediatrician. I graduated with the same specialisation in mind.  As a student, together with my dad, I saw patients in his office. I learned how to carry out the clinical examination of children and take the medical history. During the studies, paediatrics classes were conducted in various children’s hospitals, including the hospital at Sienna Street. I remember this hospital as small and clean, with nice staff. At that time there was no running water in patient rooms. There were washbasins with tanks, water flowed from the foot-operated tap. It was the turn of the 1970s and 1980s. As I remembered the clinics from the 1960s, it did not make an impression on me. At that time many hospitals were quite primitive compared to today’s standards. When I finished my studies, I thought I would go for an interview for work and specialisation to the hospital at Sienna Street. I left the last exam for the autumn session. After the exam, I wanted to go for a job interview, but during holidays, I was persuaded to work in the ultrasound laboratory in the Central Clinical Hospital at Banach Street – my friends convinced me that it would be easier to get a job if I had additional, practical skills.       

Why didn’t you eventually become a paediatrician? 

I was engrossed in ultrasonography. I did not specialise in paediatrics, but in radiology. By a twist of fate, I ended up in the hospital at Sienna Street. After buying the ultrasound equipment, the hospital management needed a doctor like me.  After a few years of working there, I found out that it was possible to apply for a modern ultrasound machine to the Foundation for Polish Science. Thanks to the cooperation with the department of neuroinfections, I was able to submit a research project, which was accepted by the foundation. The device was purchased for the hospital, and I developed the project – the resulting PhD thesis was entitled: ‘Evaluation of cerebral flow values in cranial ultrasound scans’. Prof. Jagna Czachorowska was one of the reviewers. I specialised not only in the transcranial evaluation of intracranial structures but also in the assessment of the liver and pancreas. With the consent of the management and again without additional money for either the hospital or me, I performed abdominal ultrasound examinations for children from the Institute of Mother and Child, suffering from cystic fibrosis. 

Do you remember your small patients?

I remember a lot of children from that period. Two of them particularly stuck in my mind: a 14-year-old boy with acute liver failure – specific, rare lesions were observed in the ultrasound examination – in whom the cause of the disease could not be determined. The examination of the biopsy specimen did not give any results in Poland. The biopsy specimen was sent to the Netherlands, but the child had died before the diagnosis was known: acute herpes simplex virus hepatitis, an inflammation that led to the patient’s death in a very short time. The second case ended well: a few years old child admitted to the hospital with jaundice and liver failure – again the cause wasn’t known… Until the mother of the child came to visit [the child] with a lot of carrot juice. When the nurse told her that it was forbidden to bring children anything to eat and drink, she replied that her child must drink at least a litre (!) of carrot juice a day. It was the moment when we started to suspect hypervitaminosis – excess – of vitamin A and related liver failure. Having stopped drinking the juice, the child recovered. I don’t have a lot of memories, only a few anecdotes irrelevant to the history of the hospital, including a dying cat, who finally lived at my place for many years… I will never forget the hospital. 

Interview conducted by: Anna Kilian

Photos Magdalena Jonas-Poławska