student nurse in woolwich ’72
Thinking back, I remember being surprised at how relatively quickly I fit in when I arrived at the Brook Hospital to train to become a nurse. A whole new world awaited me, indeed I had been a patient many times in London, Scotland, then Toronto. Now I was back in the UK, just turned 21, and determined to become a nurse and a British nurse at that! must admit that when I arrived at the Brook, all set to be a nurse, knowing in the back of my mind that this would be a huge challenge in my life, surprisingly I was most disappointed when we were given our uniforms.
We were measured for the uniforms at the beginning of our classes. Within a couple of days we were supplied with 3 blue dresses made out of a thick woven cotton material, which turned dark blue when wet!!! (not too great if one sweated heavily like I did, worse when nervous! At some point, when writing home, I asked my mum to post me sweatpads, which could be bought n dressmaking supplies…… I sewed them into my dress, and voila, when I sweated, now I had a dark blue ring surrounding my bulkier underarm light blue fabric….. in other words…. fail!!)
Then there were heavily starched white aprons that had to be attached to your dress with safety pins, a self coloured blue belt, stiff detachable blinding white collar starched to within an inch of its life, and … ugh – white cardboard caps as plain as day,
I found the following pix on http://oesermaatra0069.hostoi.com
with nothing approaching an elaborate or fancy design. Oh My Dear!, I was sooo disappointed that my uniform had no frills, either on the cap or the sleeves or the pinny.
No sumptuous folds of white gatherings anywhere!! At least we did not have to recreate the starched perfection as we learned that when our uniforms were soiled we were to deposit them into a laundry area where they would be laundered, starched and returned to our rooms (if we lived in the nurses home, which I did).
We were also supplied with a cape……
exactly like I had seen in films or whatever. It was heavy wool, longer and reversible, red on one side and dark navy on the other.. If I remember correctly nurses were to wear the red side out when they were on duty and the navy when they were off.
The Brook uniform code called for flesh coloured stockings/tights with black shoes. Another dream dashed! I had really hoped for thick black stockings which was what I remember seeing in pictures of British hospital nurses, as well as when I was incarcerated, having all my orthopaedic surgeries. Even with my gammy leg, (which is impossible to hide), I took a risk and started to wear grey tights ( hoping no-one would notice) with the hope that I could gradually colour down to black. As luck wouldn’t have it, one day I was walking through the corridors of the Brook (some outdoors covered by a transparent plastic awnings), and who should be walking towards me but m a t r o n….. and some of her senior cronies. I froze for an instant and realized that there was no where or way I could hide my indiscretion. Sure enough, matron approached and and with very dry sarcasm commented that if my skin were the colour of my stockings then I would either be in an oxygen tent or dead! ‘Make sure you are wearing the proper uniform colours or you will receive marks against you’. The more marks on your file, the closer you were to being reprimanded and suspended without pay…. another fail!
Sisters, or head nurses, wore dark blue uniforms with long sleeves those great thick black elastic belts with ornate buckles and starched cuffs. Staff nurses, State Registered Nurses, wore the same blue uniform as mine, but with the sassy black … (I also remember seeing some bright red elastic belts, but cannot for the life of me remember what that signified), and State Enrolled nurses, wore the same paraphernalia only in green.
I then noticed something interesting on the wards. It seems that back then, nurses who graduated from other hospitals could wear their own ‘home’ uniforms instead of the official Brook unifomr…. I may be wrong, but I seem to recall seeing the odd non-Brook uniform on a SRN, or SEN…
As it turned out student (SRN 3 year training) and pupil (SEN 2 years training) nurses seemed to be the guts of the hospital labour force & of course the NHS. We had blocks of classes & then bigger blocks of working on the wards. Classroom education blocks which were about 4 weeks long, consisting of anatomy, physiology, biology, pharmacology, disease process, tests and practical learning: making beds, administering injections, inserting naso-gastric tubes, and then for the next month or two, we were literally thrown onto the wards where we worked 5 full shifts and 1 or 2 half shifts a week. Our work schedule was determined by the ward sister and hence we also ended up working evening and night shifts.
Work soon became relatively routine. The most fun I had in that training part of my life, was a 2 month stint on Simpson ward, which was male orthopaedics. A long ‘room’ lined by many beds filled with men of all ages on each side. Now here was a task for me to undertake, a ward full of men!, and me with my gammy leg and having to wear a ‘dress’ of course, but at that time nurses wearing trousers was unheard of.
On Simpson ward, the Sister was a chubby woman, quite tall with dark curly hair, not too old (I always found it hard to determine age when I was young) and hallelujah she actually had a sense of humour and was quite decent. Not like the sister I encountered on my very first ward, which was female medical. For the life of me I cannot remember the name of that ward. In Britain, it seems that many hospitals name their wards after famous British doctors and contributors to medicine, whereas here in North America they use geographical logical directions for their patient units. This sister was skinny with short greying hair, quite unattractive with glasses and a sergeant major type manner. I remember not long after I had started my stint on that first ward, I was in the nurses’ area where all the charts were. I was sitting and perusing my patient’s chart, when sister sternly called out “S” (my surname)! get up and let the doctor sit there, …and go make him a cup of tea”! Talk about your sucking up!
A strange coincidence occurred on my first day on that ward. It was an evening shift and I approached the ward entrance with trepidation. I was told to report to the sister’s office, with no idea where anything was. I must have checked a room where the door was slightly ajar. I had wrongly assumed that all patients were on open wards. I peaked my head into the room only to see a lifeless body lying on a hospital bed wrapped somewhat in a sheet. It was an older lady who was obviously deceased. I was to find out later that she died of complications of multiple sclerosis, just as my sister was to 20 odd years down the line.