The training was hard, with a 57 hour week, a half day off once a fortnight, all for £7. 9 shillings a month.
In the bygone day when the British ruled over their Empire, there was a day, set aside each year to commemorate that time. We all sang:
“It’s the 24th of May
The Queen’s birthday (Queen Victoria)
If we don’t get a holiday
We’ll all run-away”
The school children were dressed up in the various national costumes, and the clothes depicting the various occupations of the peoples of the British Isles. My first memory of that day, being six years old, I was “the nurse”, resplendent in my white cap and apron with a very large red cross on my chest, carrying a doll suitably bandaged. I was born in 1936 and I had a chequered school life because of the war years, being moved to nine different schools before I was thirteen, but every Empire Day, no matter where, I was always “the nurse”.
On leaving the Grammar School I was asked by the Careers Officer what I was going to do. My reply, that I was going to be a nurse was met with disapproval by all, including the headmaster who felt that I should be a teacher, and not waste my academic abilities on a “low paid – dirty job”. However, against the advice, I got an interview with the matron and was accepted to commence my nurse training. I wasn’t eighteen before the next training session started so I did some months as a cadet nurse in the hospital. This was really fetching and carrying, patients and documents and x-rays from and to the various departments.
It was a very beneficial time, the two main reasons were that I had my longed for nurse’s uniform, with a cap and no apron. Secondly, it gave me an opportunity to know the hospital very well, and to know the many varying departments and more importantly who worked in each one. This knowledge was to be of great use to me during my training, especially on night duty when there was no one around to ask where things were and often patients’ records were needed urgently.
To my supreme joy, I started my nurse training on 2 September 1952. We were 3 months in training school learning hospital etiquette, anatomy, physiology and hygiene, and psychology. We were crammed full of all this new knowledge, day after day for 12 weeks. There was no academic level to be reached before entering the profession, which, sadly, is not so today.
It perhaps is a help to me that I was used to studying and did not find the work as difficult as some of my colleagues with a less formal education. The positive side was that everyone had the same chance to succeed if they wanted to be a nurse. There were 16 in the training school and only 1 failed the course. This I think says a great deal. At the end of the training school we were allowed on the wards. We were given bright pink dresses (still no apron) and were therefore referred to as “Pinkies”.
Tynemouth Victoria Jubilee Infirmary and Preston Hospital were then separate hospitals and when we left PTS (Preliminary Training School) we went back to our own hospitals. Eleven went to Preston. The nurse that failed was employed an auxiliary nurse and was there for the next 30 years. We arrived on the wards packed full of knowledge and realised in the first hour that we knew ‘nowt’.
However, learn we did slowly, by example and practical teaching, sometimes by a nurse only a 3 month training school ahead of us or a staff nurse. The first ward was Female Surgical, and the very experienced Sister gave me some good advice on my first day, which was “Keep your eyes wide open and your mouth tight shut”.
The training was hard, with a 57 hour week, a half day off once a fortnight, all for £7/ 9 shillings a month, but I was doing what I’d always wanted to do, and I would have done it for nothing. The nurses’ home with my own “cell” was my home for the next two years, and all our meals were provided and uniforms, inside and out; the only expense was black shoes and stockings.
There was little social life, as we were always so tired, and were checked in by 10.30 p.m. or 11.00 p.m. which was a late pass, allocated after special interview with matron. Naturally this was not asked for, or granted, very often. Nurses in training were not to marry until they qualified, and again, only after permission from matron. Only two of the sisters out of 14 were married; most had a military Queen Alexandra Nursing background. Many with active war service. This discipline spilled over the many aspects of our daily routine. One addressed all consultants as “Sir”; we went on leave, not holiday, and asked permission to come and go off duty. This made for a very regimented system on the wards, but I’m sad to say it bears no relation to the informal and somewhat sloppy attitude of the staff to each other on my recent dealings in hospital.
I won’t be bigoted enough to say that everything was good about the old system, but my last 17 years in nursing were spent as a community nursing sister, and the feedback from the overwhelming number of the patients was that they didn’t like ‘all this first name business’ and, with the loss of uniform, they didn’t know who was who anymore.
The ward sister did a full round of each patient each morning and before she went off duty at night, and was always available for visitors’ enquiries during 7.00 – 7.30 p.m. visiting hours. Therefore, she knew all about every patient – their illness. This was an absolute priority and ‘woe-betide’ a sister or staff nurse who did not have the name and diagnosis of every patient ready for the matron’s ward round about 11.00 a.m. daily. I must confess there may have been a few fibs told, but the patients were so loyal to the Sister, that they sat in their beds and didn’t contradict her, when she said Mr Brown was in fact Mr Jones.
When I qualified as an SRN in 1957, I was invited to become a Staff Nurse on a busy Male Surgical Ward: 26 surgical beds plus 10 orthopaedic beds. It was an extremely busy ward as we had five consultants and operations were carried out every day and we were on surgical call alternate weekends. The ward sister was ex-army and had served in Crete, she was wonderful, and the men loved and responded to her.
I will always be grateful to her for the way she taught me to handle people. She hated administration, and left that to me for the four years I staffed under her, but she was a born nurse and did it so well. She could make a bank manager in one bed and a vagrant in another bed, feel that the most important thing she had to do that day was to look after each of them. She was a wonderful example to me and I’m sure many others, and was respected by all the doctors and consultants alike.
It is almost impossible to condense my forty three years nursing into single events, there are so many instances both happy and sad that I can recall, so, perhaps only a few will suffice.
In 1961 I was given my first Ward Sister’s post on a Children’s Ward of 21 beds, the patients were from birth to 16 years and were suffering from chronic illness, e.g. kidney disease; casualty trauma, e.g. road accidents; and general surgical conditions, e.g. hernia etc. I heId the ward for four years and during that time had four cases of leukaemia. At that time, in spite of treatment and multiple transfusions, the little patients all died, not like today when 70% are cured.
One little seven year old boy whom we had nursed many times during his short life, was in yet again for a further transfusion. He was dripped for four days and all the veins had collapsed and life for him had become unbearable. I was there beside him when he begged his mother not to let them give him any more blood. We watched this pale little boy ebbing away, but with such courage! His mother and I just held each other and cried together in the corridor outside his room. I explained the consequences of her actions to her, when she told me to take the drip down, but she understood better than I or the doctors could possibly have done. He died peacefully at 5.00 a.m. the following morning, but I will never forget him.
On the other side of the coin, I remember a gentleman who fell 40 feet into a dock, bouncing on stagings as he fell. It would be too detailed to tell of all his multiple fractures, and an amputated left foot. The pelvis was shattered which resulted in a ruptured bowel and ruptured bladder. I went to the theatre with him that evening. There were five surgeons operating on him, and it was my duty to hand pump 23 pints of plasma and 11 pints of blood into him during the five hour operation.
No one asked for overtime in those days. The patient needed care and it was done. He was a very ill man for some time, but 12 months later he walked out of the hospital on his own two feet. That is what it means to be part of it. I received a Christmas card from him for the next 21 years, until he died of a heart attack aged 71. There were also other many, many terminally ill patients, both young and old, that I nursed to a dignified death, but it would be too painful to remember their illnesses in any great detail here, but they are not forgotten.
After 26 years’ service in hospitals, with two 6 months breaks to have my son and daughter, I left to join the community as a district nursing sister at Forest Hall Health Centre. Once again, I was back on a learning curve, as I was supplied with a diary and a list of patients, and off I went. Four years later I was sent on a District Nursing Course. Nevertheless, I had had excellent training to fall back on, and very good and supportive colleagues on the district who were willing to help if I was stumped. I thoroughly enjoyed my years there, and had great help and support from the five doctors that I worked for.
People asked me if I liked one aspect of nursing more than the other, but it wasn’t that clear cut, they were each so different. In hospital there is a hierarchy and the levels are: (1) the patient at the bottom, then (2) the ward sister, and (3) the consultant. In the patient’s home it was the opposite with (1) the doctor, (2) the sister and (3) the patient. Once you realised that you were a guest in their home, and although you could advise and liaise with the doctor about their treatment, if they say no, then that was that. It certainly gives one a different perspective on one’s importance in the scheme of things. However, that didn’t happen very often, and I felt very fulfilled with my life on the district.
I don’t regret leaving the hospitals in 1978 as the loyalty to one’s training school had gone when the hospital examinations combined and the disappearance of the SRN (State Registered Nurse) and the title of Registered General Nurse was installed. In the present system the nurses can now specialise after their first years in training, so I fail to see how the term general can be used at the end of it.
In my time there has always been a shortage of nurses, mostly caused by low pay and increased academic entrance standards, but about 1963 we accepted the Salmon Report which was the start of tier management. This meant we had even fewer staff and pairs of hands on the wards. This meant even fewer Indians and many, many more chiefs. Each government has shuffled this around, and in the guise of economy, have cut nursing staff on the wards etc. and moved management jobs sideways.
My own personal example is that when I joined the health centre in 1980, there was myself, another sister, a full time and part time staff nurse, and a full time SEN (state enrolled nurse) wonderful practical nurses with many years’ experience, and an auxiliary nurse, who helped with the care of the elderly. However, when I retired in 1996, at sixty, there was myself, a shared staff nurse and a part-time SEN and a 20 hour auxiliary nurse, all to nurse the same 12 to 14,000 patients that we had at the outset. I’m sure it is self-evident that life was crazily busy, and very stressful. I’m sorry to admit that my retirement came as a relief. Nevertheless, I have no regrets about my nursing career, and will continue to live with my memories of those fulfilling years.