Who would be a nurse? Part One
My first dressing up costume was as a five year old and consisted of a nurses blue and white striped dress, white apron, plastic stethoscope and a cap with a red cross. I remember the local "old school" GP commenting on it as he came on a house visit to my Auntie with whom I lived. He asked if he could rely on me as his assistant.
My Auntie Elsie had various ailments including leg ulcers, chronic diabetes and heart issues. I remember helping the GP as he changed bandages, examined and investigated on his numerous visits. The malodorous and sights never bothered me and it seemed to come naturally to soothe and calm and provide reassurance. As a lone child, I made up many games in my childhood, including playing school. My various teddies, dolls and stuffed animals would all be propped or leaning in rows for today's lessons. They all had a variety of bandages, Elastoplasts (remember them? itchy red rash notwithstanding!) and red patches drawn onto the dressings with a red felt pen. It came naturally to want to cure and heal the sick and needy from even such an early age.
My Mothers psychiatric illness mean't I became a carer of sorts from an early age also. Her various suicide attempts and disappearances became commonplace and I spent most of my teens in psychiatric wards listening and seeing just how this affected peoples lives. It did not get picked up by any school social workers at the time, as I was always fed, clean and tidy and never skipped school - testament to my Auntie who was always supportive. My Mum could help none of it, as it was and is an illness, but it affects those close in such a deep way.
I enjoyed Latin at school and had already decided I wanted to be a nurse and was advised by my language teacher Latin would be useful. However a combination of careers advisers and my Mum did not agree on my choice of profession. This led to me taking Geography which I hated with a passion! I secretly remained passionate about nursing as my chosen career and forged ahead with studying hard. My mothers illness mean't that my concentration was poor and I needed to take some exams again which I did and finally was able to apply. The nursing interview was tough and grueling and I was surprised to be accepted. My mother was not impressed and made no attempt to cover up her displeasure. I never really discovered why it was, but I know she always wanted a career but brought me up as a single parent so perhaps there lied the reason.
My nurse training began in 1987 and I was lucky to have a great group who became known as the "whydowes" because we questioned everything constantly. The training consisted of blocks of theory in a school of nursing and placements on wards and departments within the local hospitals of a West Yorkshire town. My first placement was on a surgical ward - old Nightingale style beds with central tables on which we did our care plans and patients flowers were kept. The uniform was the same colour as my childhood costume but in blocks and a terribly itchy material, necessary black laced up shoes and tights. The best part of the uniform by far was the navy gaberdine cape with a bright red lining and straps which criss crossed over our front. We really thought we were the bees knees walking to and from placment to nursing school. They came in handy on night shifts as a blanket on the draughty old wards.
I remember my first wage slip and still have them all. It seemed so much money and after paying my mum board and lodging having so much in the bank and not knowing what to do with it. My lifestyle was not exactly fast pace and my weekly Saturday night at a local disco with friends did not really eat into it very much. This was all to change however when I got a flat nearby to nursing college with a friend. My Mum had become quite difficult to live with and I needed my own independance. The shock of bills, rent and shopping soon dawned on me and that my wage was really not that big at all!
My early memories are of strict ward sisters. One who ruled with a rod of iron on my first placement, with a starched white cap, and who amazed me as she never came out of her office but knew every last thing about the patients and us! She kindly turned a blind eye to the fact that we smoked in the sluice and there must have been so many half cigarettes hastily flushed away day and night at the sound of footsteps approaching! My sad memory here was of a boy with learning disabilities who collapsed on Boxing day and being asked to run for the cardiac arrest trolley on the next ward. I felt so stupid and slow trying to push the trolley quickly up the hill with my adrenalin pumping through my veins. The awful sight of the boy on the floor in full view of all, and attempts were futile as he must have had a long standing history of cardiac issue unbeknown to us all. He was such a character on the ward with an infectious smile and laugh. I found it impossible to eat my Boxing Day lunch at home and burst into tears when it all sank in. The Consultants on the ward were always invited into Sisters office for a cup of tea - a full china tea service after ward rounds. They also turned up over Christmas to serve meals and one in particular was very leery to a colleague after having consumed a lot of alcohol. a good job he was not operating that day! For Christmas I recieved a small parcel from the infamous ward sister and it was a pack of tights. A small but very touching gesture I thought. A firm but fair leader who supported her staff and ensured the best quality care of her patients. The one thing I never understood however was why she made us butter 2 loaves of bread every single morning and offer this to patients prior to breakfast with a choice of jam or marmalade. No one ever wanted it but we did it religiously as per orders day in and day out.
Another favourite ward sister was on a gynaecology ward and would invite students to join her in a game of Trivial Pursuit. There she would be, feet aloft, fag in hand but always ready to roll up her sleeves when required. I found this placement quite alarming with patients having abortions, sad individual stories and horrific sights and memories at times - the dark side of maternity care. I did learn a lot of my technical skills on this ward including aseptic technique with the Ward sister assessing me. Trying to take sutures out whilst being assessed and my knees knocking and hands trembling, but my ward sister was so kind and patient. I passed with flying colours due to having her as one of the best mentors.
Psychiactric wards were really not for me, a little too close to home for obvious reasons. I gritted my teeth and got through it with some difficulty. We always used to joke you couldn't tell the staff from the patients.
A lot of our student nurse duties involved good old fashioned cleaning. A weekend cleaning book where we would primp, preen, shine and polish as if our lives depended on it. Woe betide a slightly smeared trolley being on your watch. We were also expected to know all our patients names, ages, and diagnoses at the drop of a hat if the dreaded Nursing Officer arrived. This was a sort of head Matron. You would have to sheepishly knock on their door when reporting back from sick or for any disciplinary issues. Their main job on nights just seemed to be the ward round. We would carefully flash our pen torches over the bed space and purport to know every last thing about the patient with flourish and all from memory. This was fine until the dreaded Nursing Officer bellowed an incorrection at you with gnashed teeth.
Our clinical tutors from Nursing School would arrive to teach us the main skills,like how to bed bathe a patient from top to toe. Our Jamaican tutor used to fascinate me as she was so kind and caring and left no part of a patient unwashed. The swish of her uniform was reassuring and the patient knew they were in expert hands. She taught me to treat a patient as if they were your own family. This moral stayed with me from that day forward.
Theatres was an interesting placement. Not really for me as I prefer my patients awake. But I remember a lot of tom foolery including being placed into the scrub sinks and huge buckets on our last day and water fights which ended in water flowing down the main hospital corridoor. Happy Days!