Dr Helen Kemp: a life in the service of others

I was born on 29 June 1947 in Redbourne, Hertfordshire, the oldest of (eventually) five children.

My father was ten years older than mother, and pre-War had worked for Vestey Brothers in Venezuela. During the War he came back to England via Spain and enlisted, serving in Burma, and at the end of the War posted to be captain in charge of the POW camp on my aunt’s farm. My mother was a young widow, who had been a medical student,  then worked at Bletchley Park, then trained as a radiographer and ending up as a Land Girl  also on my aunt’s farm. My father fell in love with her, and they married.

A childhood spent on the move

Dad got a job with Shell in Venezuela. My mother took me there at ten weeks old on an oil tanker where there were not supposed to be any passengers, so my mother became “chief steward”, and I was the “under-stewardess” – at ten weeks! We went to Lake Maracaibo, and lived in oil camps. My father was a  personnel manager dealing with strikes in various areas, and in 15 years we moved 30 times! and I went to ten schools by the age of ten!

My three sisters (Christine, Jackie and Mary-Claire) were born very quickly – all within five years.

Helen, Christine, Jackie, Mary-Claire and John in Trinidad

We then moved to Persia (Iran), where we were all ill all the time, and my brother John, who is nine and half years younger than me was born. I remember its was very hot, and I was aware of this proud nation with its ancient history of civilisation. But when John was still a baby Dad sent us back to the UK. We stayed with my grandparents in Scotland. My father was not Catholic, but my mother was converted to Catholicism when I was two and a half. This caused family ructions and there were always arguments about religion. We were actually thrown out of the house on this occasion and we stayed at Fort Augustus, in the house of Mr Palmer, a colleague of my mother who was a teacher at the abbey school. They had six children, and we had a lovely time – it was such a warm family. Mum and the five of us occupied the front room, kitchen quarters were tight, and there was only one bathroom in the house!

Then Dad came back from Persia and we moved to Kent. Christine (second sister) and I were sent to a Catholic boarding school (Convent of the Holy Child Jesus) in Kent. I was a very shy girl, a bookworm.

At school

I became ill there after a year, and I was sent to rejoin my parents who were by then in Trinidad, and poor Christine was left on her own at school. I had a wonderful time in Trinidad, for about nine months, but then I came back to school in the UK. My father was made redundant when I was 15, and they came back to Kent.

A sense of vocation

I wanted to help people, and maybe be a nurse and help in the Missions, but Mother Mary Thais said I could do medicine, though I had to do physics and chemistry with my other O Levels, which meant giving up art (which I hated) and needlework (which was good for me),  history (which I loved) and geography. I managed to pass these exams and went to Dartford Tech to do science A levels. I was in a class of 42, almost all boys. I had acne and I was very shy and innocent.

I got my A levels and had an offer to go to Liverpool University, but decided to go to Charing Cross Hospital as it was nearer home. And so I did – I had a proper haircut and wore a suit for the first time. There were 12 girls in a class of 48. I lived with my grandparents in London and after 18 months I passed Second MB (a lot of work with anatomy and dissection, physiology and biochemistry. After this I started the clinical phase of training.

At the time of graduation

We were split into “firms” (groups) of five, each going round with a consultant, spending an allotted time with various specialities, and Peter was in the same firm as me. We started walking round London together and talking. After our obstetric firm our relationship developed!

Marriage and Australia

We qualified in 1970 and were married in the September of that year. Peter wanted to see the world, and the Australian Government was offering passages for £20 if you promised to stay two years. By this time Ruth had arrived, and she was ten weeks old when we arrived in the heat of January in Perth in January 1971. I worked part-time in Casualty at the Royal Perth Hospital, and Jamie was born mid-1973. After two years in Perth we went to Geraldton, 300 miles north.

We bought a three-ton Dodge truck and converted it as a camper. I had to get an HGV licence in order to drive it. After six months in Geraldton  the four of us set off on a six-month trip round Australia, on those amazing dirt roads. At one point the front bearing went, and Peter went off 150 miles on his motorbike to get the part.

The Dodge truck – Ruth on board

We were near a railway camp for workers looking after the track from Mount Tom Price to Port Hedland and they looked after us while Peter was away. Jamie learned to walk while we were broken down. People don’t realise these days – we still washed nappies by hand, and so every five days we went to a campsite where I washed all the nappies (Ruth was still in night nappies). There would be lots of creature in the plastic bag – the nappies never recovered! After  Darwin we just missed the monsoon. We went to Ayers Rock, and arrived as the sun was setting .It was one of the most spiritual magical moments of the trip. Peter went up the rock after we arrived, while I looked after the children, but he wouldn’t let me go up on my own the next day as a Japanese tourist had just fallen to his death. We  returned to Perth  with no money but after an amazing trip finally crossing the Nullarbor plain/desert. Peter worked hard with the out-of-hours service, and I did some locum work.

Back home – to Norfolk

We returned to the UK in mid-1975. One of the reasons we came back was the way the Aborigines were treated. There was a lot of racism, and some GPs wouldn’t treat the Aborigine people. Also we missed our families.

Peter had a locum job in Great Yarmouth. It wasn’t the romantic place I thought of from reading Dickens: it was autumn, and it was horrendous because it was so cold. Then the chance of working in Harleston came up as Dr Dick Chapman needed a partner., so Peter joined him in partnership. He loves East Anglia. I did locum work for the next four years. Emily arrived in the hot summer of 1976, and Andy in 1978 . Ruth had started at St Edmund’s in Bungay and Jamie was a toddler. Then Dr Chapman left, and Peter said “Can we make a go of the practice together?”

Living in Harleston

The next seven years were hard work: we had four children at different schools, and one of us was always on call. But patients loved it because we were always there, and that gave them lot of continuity. People were so kind. We were at the coal face, and patients got to see a real person in those days. But they were difficult years because of the continual demand from family and work, though I loved being part of the community. I had three part-time ladies who helped in the house and with childcare – it was easier in those years as the surgery was in front of the house. Initially there was no appointment system- sometimes 40 people were waiting to be seen, and we had no practice nurse either. There was much more visiting as few patients had phones or cars.

Eventually we were so busy that in 1986 we asked Alex Valori to join the practice. By this time we had built the new (now old!) surgery and moved to our present home, which we love. It was great to be slightly out of the town, yet able to walk in if we were snowed in which has happened on several occasions. Then Patrick Frew joined part time. I loved working. I was very organized. I did feel guilty, though, as I always felt I was failing either the children or work.

The changing life of the country GP

There have been lots of changes medically and administratively in general practice. It’s much more 9-5 now, and GPs don’t do out-of-hours (unless they want to). In 2008 Peter retired when he was 60, and in 2009 I retired from the practice, but then went back three-quarter time for two years. In between then and now I have worked as a locum in some very deprived areas , but have finally retired fully.

The idea of service

I think my idea of service to people comes from my time at the convent. I did think about becoming a nun there. I went to Mass every day. Also it comes from my mother. She took us children to the slums and shanty towns in Caracas, and we saw the dreadful poverty, when I was about seven or eight. She helped with their education. So I saw what my mother was like. She had wanted to be a priest. It’s wonderful to have the type of nature that draws everyone in. I do care about the environment. There is only one world and its resources are finite, and we are using them up. Modern technology is helping with conservation, but it is difficult as all of our world wants the better standard of living.

I have been very lucky, though we have worked hard for it. I have a simple faith. I don’t ask a lot of questions, but because of my mother I could never not be a Catholic. Father Richard  (Yeo) began the process whereby I began to try and develop the deeper meaning of life, but not very successfully! One of the wonderful things he did was change the pews round in the church at Bungay so people could see one another, but the parish wouldn’t let him keep it that way. I do feel the Roman Catholic Church must accept married priests, and women priests as well. There needs to be change; more compassion.

I am so fortunate to have a supportive loving husband

Silver Wedding, 1995

and four wonderful children. We have eight grandsons, and are very lucky to be very involved with the six of them who are in Bungay, though unfortunately Jamie has moved to the country of his birth, so we don’t see the other two so often.

Time is moving on. Who knows what the future holds for us all, especially in these difficult times? All we can do is pray.