At age six Starkey developed appendicitis. Following a routine appendectomy he contracted peritonitis, causing him to fall into a coma that lasted days. His recovery spanned twelve months, which he spent away from his family at Liverpool's Myrtle Street children's hospital. Upon his discharge in May 1948, his mother allowed him to stay home, causing him to miss school. At age eight, he remained illiterate, with a poor grasp of mathematics. His lack of education contributed to a feeling of alienation at school, which resulted in his regularly playing truant at Sefton Park. After several years of twice-weekly tutoring from his surrogate sister and neighbour, Marie Maguire Crawford, Starkey had nearly caught up to his peers academically, but in 1953, he contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium, where he remained for two years. During his stay the medical staff made an effort to stimulate motor activity and relieve boredom by encouraging their patients to join the hospital band, leading to his first exposure to a percussion instrument: a makeshift mallet made from a cotton bobbin that he used to strike the cabinets next to his bed. Soon afterwards, he grew increasingly interested in drumming, receiving a copy of the Alyn Ainsworth song "Bedtime for Drums" as a convalescence gift from Crawford. Starkey commented: "I was in the hospital band . . . That's where I really started playing. I never wanted anything else from there on . . . My grandparents gave me a mandolin and a banjo, but I didn't want them. My grandfather gave me a harmonica . . . we had a piano – nothing. Only the drums. "
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