Melting aprons and blood on the roses, 43 years of caring

Location : Norwich

I started nursing in 1972, just before I was 18. I had decided when I was quite young that I needed to get a qualification and the only thing I could see on the horizon was nursing as there wasn’t a lot of choice for women in the early 1970s.

After six weeks in what they called the preliminary training school, we went off to the wards where you were expected to do anything that needed doing. You cleaned the sluice, did the bed-pans, took report with the trained staff but you didn’t ask any questions or suggest any other way of doing anything – you were the junior and you just got on with it. We worked a mixture of shifts and you only got one weekend off a month; it was hard work and we never stopped.

My first ward was Gynae [Gynaecology] so I was suddenly nursing people my mother’s age who were sometimes dying of awful diseases we could do nothing for. And we had things like late terminations that we were doing for young girls, and it was quite horrendous when I look back on it but you either sank or swam.

When we arrived at the hospital we were allocated single rooms. You had your own washbasin and there was a lovely bathroom and copious hot water. In those days it was really quite something to have all this hot water and facilities to yourself.

You were allowed to go out in the evening but if you came back late you had to walk through the main hospital corridor because they shut all the nurses’ home doors. But you didn’t have to sign in any more, which was a big stride towards liberalisation.

The food in the hospital was very good. It was cooked on the spot; there were no vending machines, fast food or cook-chill – none of that.

The pay wasn’t that great an amount. I can remember at the end of the month, once you’d paid for your food and any necessities of life, you could buy either a pair of shoes or a dress but you didn’t have money to buy both.

I quite liked my uniform – it was a light ‘denimy’-type material and it had to be five inches below the knee. This is the days of mini-skirts so five inches below the knee was a generous amount of cloth wrapped round your legs! And on top of this dress you had a very stiff fabric apron which would make your arms sore at the top where you brushed against the edge while you were bed-making. And if you got it splashed it would ‘melt’ because it was thin material but starched, so as soon as it came into contact with water it would just melt. But you had to have one of these clean every day so you were constantly down in the laundry room picking up your newly-laundered uniform.

On top of your head you had a little hat. The ones we had were very plain but some of the hospitals had very elaborate ones. And I can remember in later years, when they gave up on nurses wearing hats, there was such a hue and cry because you’d have different hats for different grades of job and each hospital had their own hat. A lot of your identity was tied up in your hat.

We had different coloured belts for different years, and when you qualified you got your navy belt and then you could wear a silver buckle with it. It was a great thing to get your silver buckle.

After three years on the wards I did a year’s theatre nursing course and then became a staff nurse at the West Norwich. One of the surgeons there used to tell marvellous stories of how they used to sew the first grafts for arterial surgery and how he used to use his shirt-tails: he and his wife would take his shirt-tails off and he’d use the cotton material to make these ‘vessels’ to put into patients.

When I was 23 I moved to a sister’s post in the paediatric theatre at the Norfolk & Norwich. In those days the child would be taken off the ward, away from the parents, and brought down to theatre with the ward nurse. It just didn’t happen that mum came to theatre with the child and a lot of mothers found that very hard.

In 1979 I moved to Hull and decided to take a post in cardiac surgery. It was open-heart surgery in the days when, really, it was highly risky; there were often complications and many of the patients died. The theatres were mainly in Portakabins so if it got a bit hot you just opened the window. We were very cavalier about blood in those days too. I remember I had to tell the theatre staff that I didn’t think taking the blood home that they didn’t use for surgery, to feed their roses, was a good idea. We knew a bit about hepatitis but nothing about cross-contamination of blood products, and HIV was not even on the horizon. The surgeons were achieving small miracles I think, every day anyone survived.

Towards the end of 1986, after taking some time off to have my son, I joined Addenbrooke’s Hospital and I ended up working there for 16 years. After a few years in charge of their obstetrics theatre and later Day Surgery Department, I did my diploma in management and I was running my own show – getting involved in decision-making about the way we worked, planning ahead and those sorts of things. And I could really bring the staff on and give them opportunities, and point out opportunities, so they could build a career better. I liked that aspect of the job.

This led, in 2002, to a deputy theatre manager’s job at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which evolved into a modern matron job. Unfortunately, things got very uncomfortable when they brought in non-clinical managers to try and sort out the hospital’s financial problems – it’s difficult to argue your clinical side of things with a non-clinical manager. So, in 2006 I came back to Norwich and, after a short spell in the private sector, I returned to the Norfolk & Norwich in the job I started doing 40 years ago of staff nurse in theatre. I retired (theoretically) in 2013 and I’ve been working part-time as a ‘Bank’ Nurse, coming in when needed for the last two years.

It’s been a fairly good career. It’s been hard work and the pay has fluctuated over the years, and has never been that great, but it’s never boring and it’s taught me about life in a way that no other job could do.

 

Hazel Smith was interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on 23rd March 2016.

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