Obituary: Sheila Ferres, pioneering physiotherapist

Sheila Ferres MBE
Sheila Ferres MBE
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Sheila Ferres, MBE, physiotherapist. Born: 3 May, 1923 in Yorkshire. Died: 6 January, 2017 in Banchory, aged 93.

As an experienced physiotherapist, Sheila Ferres knew exactly what was happening when she began to lose feeling in her neck: she was in the early stages of polio.

Summoning all her reserves she managed to drive the five miles home, put her private practice in order and prepare for hospitalisation. She was so ill that one nurse expected her to be carried out feet first – and brutally told her so.

Ferres did not need any such graphic prediction of the consequences. She knew firsthand the utterly devastating effects of the disease, having treated many patients in Rhodesia and South Africa, including one eight-year-old girl so stricken by the paralysis that she was confined to a spinal carriage. But she also knew what willpower and determination could achieve. In the little girl’s case, after two years of compassion and rehabilitation, Ferres got her back on her feet and starting to walk. Decades later, she heard her former patient was holding down a job.

Though Ferres herself was lucky to survive, she lost the use of her left leg, right arm and torso, spent seven months in hospital and underwent five operations, including a total hysterectomy. But she also displayed a core of steel when it came to her own recovery, staring at her limbs, willing them to move and begin working again.

“I knew there was no point in wasting time and energy by being upset about the polio,” she explained in her memoirs, written more than 60 years later. “The fact was, it had happened and my job was to make the best of it. In many ways it became an education because I learnt so much trying to recover and I was then able to use this experience later for the benefit of my patients.”

That knowledge was fully utilised in her work, which she resumed within five years and continued right up to the age of 93, making her the UK’s longest-serving physiotherapist, honoured with an MBE for her services to the discipline.

She credited her generous spirit to her parents, who encouraged her to appreciate everything and always assist others. Each evening they asked what she had done to help another that day – a philosophy that inspired her and the title of her memoir, A Life of Giving, written with friend Jo Booth and published at the age of 93.

The youngest of three sisters, she was raised in Yorkshire in affluence by her parents, cousins Stephen and Elsie Bennett, both members of the same wealthy family.

All three girls contracted scarlet fever as youngsters and were bed-bound for six weeks – a frustrating experience for the lively, sports-loving young Sheila. Educated at Rossfield Prep School and Bradford Girls’ Grammar, she was a talented hockey and tennis player, the latter due to her physique – she stood 5ft 11in with arms five inches longer than average.

After leaving school at 17 she trained in massage and medical gymnastics – forerunner of physiotherapy – at London’s Guy’s Hospital, relocated to Orpington, Kent, during the Second World War. Her sister Ailsa also trained as a nurse there.

Blessed with a photographic memory, she qualified with distinction, becoming the top physiotherapy student in Britain and began work at the Royal Naval Hospital, Dartford where she assisted pioneering orthopaedic surgeon Major T. T. Stamm, who was at the forefront of hip replacement surgery. The range of war injuries encountered encouraged staff to innovate and find new ways of helping patients, something she always believed influenced the way she worked.

At Dartford she helped to rehabilitate troops brutalised in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Many were physically damaged, some mentally unstable, including one of her patients who murdered his mother while allowed home for Christmas.

By the age of 23 she was in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, in charge of a physiotherapy department, where her patients included the little polio victim. She then went to South Africa, where she was recruited to open a physiotherapy department for blacks and non-whites in Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. She learned Afrikaans, was introduced to the South African prime minister, General Jan Smuts, and later attended his memorial service on Table Mountain.

Tennis was still a big part of her life and she played at Cape Town’s prestigious Western Province Club, winning the ladies’ singles title. But it was a tumultuous and violent era for the country and Ferres decided to return to England.

At a friend’s suggestion she set up in private practice in Bognor, along the road from a Dr Gordon Ferres who gave her referrals. Patients included the musician Eric Coates, composer of theme music for The Dam Busters film and Desert Island Discs.

But polio, contracted from a patient, struck in 1953 when she was 30. As part of her recuperation she went to Switzerland for hydrotherapy and returned unhindered by her spinal support jacket, utilising it to smuggle liqueurs on her flight home.

Dr Ferres, now a widower, met her at the airport and within three years they were married. He was 65, she 35, but the age gap meant nothing. He had been equally adventurous in his youth, working in Sumatra where he was mauled by a tiger. He bagged the big cat on a game hunt but the shot did not prove fatal – a fact he learned when, on checking the “kill” the beast clamped its front paws around his leg. As it opened its jaws he rammed his gun down its throat and fired his last shot but he was horribly wounded when, as the tiger expired, its claws contracted, tearing open his leg.

The scars were still evident when, after retiring to his native North-east Scotland, he was involved in a serious car accident, shattering his leg in 11 places. His wife, who had set up her own practice at their home in Banchory, nursed him back to fitness. He was 76 and lived to 100.

Her clients included marathon runners, North Sea helicopter pilots, the royal household at Balmoral, where she treated the late Princess Margaret, and all the local estates – including one where, in a client’s bedroom, she was confronted by a horse with pneumonia being exercised inside the baronial mansion. She declined the owner’s request to teach it some breathing exercises.

Widowed in 1993, she was made an MBE in 1999, by which time she had also become a successful watercolourist. In 2000 she established her charity, Chart, giving profits from her art to local organisations Glen O’Dee Hospital, the Forget Me Not Club and the Thursday Group. After her sister Ailsa died from vascular dementia she donated £250,000 of her legacy for a brain scanner. Several hundred thousand more pounds went to build Bennett House, a centre for dementia sufferers in Banchory, which she opened in 2015.

At 93 she was still working full-time, rising at 5am and retiring each night pondering the same question her parents had posed to her as a child – what had she done for someone else that day?