My late Aunt did her Nurse Training in the late 1940’s. She wrote her memiors and I am now typing up to add to the Family Archives. I would like to share one of her pieces with you all. Life in the N.H.S. so different in those days.
ORIGINAL – by Kathleen Phyllis Dicker
copyright Miss mary
The ‘wastage rate’ in nursing is the number of students who leave their hospitals without completing their training. The national average has always been around 30%, but our hospital must have had a really bad spell because about three quarters of the nurses immediately senior to my set left altogether at the end of my first year of training.
This didn’t seem to make us short of staff – a lot of new juniors must have come – it simply meant that we moved up in the world.
Suddenly we were senior students, expected to take charge of dressings and medicines trolleys instead of bedpans and wash-bowls. This was exhilarating but we were not ready. Not having completed any of the more advanced lectures we hadn’t much idea of the action of the medicines we dished out, and were learning the more complicated dressing techniques as we went along.
My biggest nightmare was preparing trolleys for the doctors to do treatment. I was sure that I wouldn’t have everything they would require. Then patients would suffer because of the delay while I ran to collect whatever it was, and the doctor would be annoyed.
When I’m teaching students today I tell them that the trolley is easy. All they have to do is visualize the treatment being done, and collect the things in order they’ll be used, but obviously this method doesn’t work if you have not seen the treatment done.
I had to constantly rush to someone for advice, although I studied like mad in my off duty, hoping to be ready for anything which might happen on the ward.
One day – when Sister was at lunch, and Staff-nurse had gone to X-ray department, – I even dragged a surprised doctor to the cupboard to choose his tools.
‘Ah – what’s this gadget’? He said, pouncing on a fearsome looking syringe with several taps. ‘now wrap it up carefully in gauze before you boil it. I’ll be back in 20 minutes.’
I was relieved. Nurses should, of course, know their work, and I hadn’t expected the doctor to be so helpful.
At the beginning of my second year I did more night duty, this time in charge of a busy surgical ward. This must have been a trial to the patients and the poor little junior nurse who had to work under me, to say nothing of the added responsibility for Night Sister. I managed, and gained a lot of confidence.
The Operating Theatre
I always hated changing wards – even those I didn’t much like became dear and familiar when I had worked there for three months, so I devised a method of boosting my morale when the dreaded ‘change list’ was published. It’s always fun to have new clothes, and I used to replenish my wardrobe then. Usually it would be undies or knitting wool, but when I found that I had been posted to the operating theatre I was so alarmed that it was necessary to splash out a bit – I bought a tweed suit.
One heard such awful things about our theatre- the surgeons were supposed to throw instruments about, and Sister was renowned for her sharp tongue. It was said that one of the Staff-Nurses was a ‘ghoul ‘ who spent all her off duty in the post mortem room, that you had to wash the walls from floor to ceiling every Sunday, and be on call at night. I didn’t really believe this, but it did nothing to re-assure me.
How I managed to oversleep on my first morning I’ll never know, but when I crept up to Staff-Nurse to apologize she looked surprised.
‘Oh, we hadn’t noticed you were not here.’
For the first week I spent most of my time scrubbing mountains of instruments, then I graduated to ‘running’. This means being the odd – job nurse fetching and carrying for the team in theatre. You do anything from picking up things they drop to mopping sweat from the surgeons’ brows.
As they were all ‘sterile’ and unable to touch anything that wasn’t, they were helpless if I went away. The signal for attendance was a loud kick on the side of the bucket which was under the operating table. The term assumed a new meaning for me.
I was glad to find nobody did any shouting and nothing was ever thrown. In fact the atmosphere in theatre was usually cordial. Some operations even went with the ‘party spirit’.
Then, oh, horror! I had to learn to be ‘sterile’ myself. Don the gown and gloves and hand instruments to the surgeon! Sister taught me to fold my hands ‘in an attitude of prayer’ to preserve their sterility while waiting for him to be ready. She guided me through the first few operations, then I was on my own. I even took my turn at being on call at night to take emergencies. We were paid for this extra duty if it happened after midnight, at the rate of ten shillings a case.
Today all patients have wrist bands with their names and the operation they are expecting to have printed clearly, so that no mistakes can be made. If a limb is to receive surgery, it is marked with a special pencil.
But we would have been shocked at the very thought of labelling patients as if they were parcels. Writing on the human body would have seemed almost sacrilegious – even our dead were only labelled on their shrouds. I shudder when I remember that our patients were identified only by the case notes lying beside them on the theatre trolley. But I don’t think there was ever a mistake over an operation in my hospital.
I trained a little later than the time of Lister with his messy carbolic spray, but we were still having to boil instruments between cases, and re- sterilizing many things which are used once only today – syringes, catheters, rubber gloves. Some of the swabs we used were rather ‘nice’ ones, made in our sewing room, and these were soaked in peroxide, boiled, autoclaved and used several times. I don’t remember there being a lot of infection in our surgical wards.
The actual routine work in theatre hasn’t changed a lot since I trained – things have become easier and more streamlined, but nurses still hand instruments, and they still ‘run’.
Not sure on next sentence, had she written something before?
But they are no longer used instead of splints.
Let me explain.
During operations surgeons often required patients’ limbs held in certain positions so that their work can be done with convenience. It seems obvious that splints and supports should be devised for this purpose, but oddly enough, such aids are a comparatively recent development. When I trained nurses sat or stood – often many hours – holding these limbs just so.
It was comfortable – even easy – task to sit at a patient’s head holding her arm at your own shoulder level while the surgeon removed her breast. Even though you sat for almost three hours, it wasn’t tiring, and you had a wonderful view.
But I remember – could I ever forget? – having to stand on my toes on a footstool, to hold a patient’s arm vertically while she lay unconscious on her side and several people worked on her shoulder joint.
After an hour of this I was in agony, and the arm began to slip down. Nobody noticed my difficulty they were absorbed in the operation, and simply told me to hold it up higher. Then someone realised that I wasn’t an inanimate splint – I was a human nurse, they were subjecting me to torture. Suddenly everyone was full of concern, and many hands came to help me until the operation was over. But they couldn’t release me until the operation was over. I had been imprisoned within the sterile drapes, and firmly fixed there with towel clips.