Working Lives

In the Health Service – Nursing and Ambulance (1940s-1971))

Location: Berlin & UK

Ramus tells us about her nursing training and career in Berlin and after meeting her husband in England working for the London Ambulance Service.

Starting work in Berlin

My first job was nursing which I began when I was 18 years of age. For the first two years I was paid nothing and my parents had to pay for me to study at the hospital. In the third year I got paid, I can’t really remember how much it was but I know that it wasn’t very much. It was just enough to have a little pocket money. One of my friends worked with me and we had our exams at the same time, she was my best friend but we worked on different wards and were never allowed to work on the same ward. We had a very strict matron and ward sisters. We had a lot of respect for the doctors as well.

I was going to become a doctor but my parents couldn’t afford the fees. It was just impossible. I had all the qualifications from school but they couldn’t afford it so I did the next best thing and went into nursing. I started on a general ward and from there I went to paediatrics, then fractures, you had to go through the whole lot. Once I had done that for two years, in year three I had to go to the mortuary for two months. You had to learn what they do when people are deceased and what you do before they are shown to the relations. It’s not very nice to go into and I don’t think you’d want to know. After that we had our exams and I passed.

After my exams I worked in that hospital for a couple of years and then I went to a specialised hospital for tuberculosis because I wanted to widen my knowledge. I worked there for two years and then I went back. I had the offer to work in another general hospital that wasn’t far from my home. I worked there mostly in gynaecology, I spent all the time in gynaecology until I came to England.

I delivered hundreds of babies. One experience I particularly remember, it was just after the war and was to do with the number of fatalities in babies. The mothers hadn’t had the nourishment they really needed. A common illness was dyspepsia and most of them, unfortunately, died of it. But that was only for one or two years and then it became better and then hardly heard of. The worst time for me was when I had to take one of these babies to the mortuary. We had no porters in those days. So that was the worst experience that I can remember.

We had to work 12 hours, with breaks. Sometimes I worked from 6am until 2pm and then I had a break and had to work from 4pm to 8pm or 4pm to 10pm. In our time off we played tennis or went swimming, we couldn’t do very much as two hours isn’t a lot really. We had to be punctual and in those days you could not go out in your uniform. You had to arrive in your nurse’s uniform and when you went onto the ward you took your cuffs off and your collar off and you put a big overall on and put the straps around you. It was so big you had a big tail hanging down, and then you were allowed to go into the ward. When you came off the ward you had to take that off and go back to your smart uniform. The discipline was sometimes very harsh, nowadays the difference is unbelievable.

Once I got into trouble. I threw a cake at the matron. I did have my reason. I wanted to have a birthday party, I had a cake and because I didn’t invite the matron she told me off. So I took the cake and threw it at her. I had a short temper then. That was one reason why I left that hospital and went to another one.

I remember when I worked in a theatre, I was so nervous because in those days you didn’t talk to doctors like you do now. We were so nervous. The surgeon was awful, he was so strict and I had to pass him the instrument and I dropped it because I was shaking. You should have heard him. He shouted at me and sent me out of the theatre. I had to go back again and he called me into his room and he told me to sit down. I thought that was the end of my nursing career, and then he took my hand and said, ‘It was your first day’. I was really frightened, then I cried because all this tension had come out. But I saw the other side to that surgeon so I wasn’t scared any more.

When you went into the hospital you could smell the carbolic, even when you had your private clothes on you could smell it, you couldn’t get rid of it. But there were never any infections, you’ve lost that cleanliness now.

We nurses had to clean the baths and the bedsides, the cleaning ladies for the floors didn’t get near it. We never had incinerators and we just got on with the brush and those wards were spotless.

Visiting hours were very restricted. Wednesdays 2-4pm, Saturdays 2-4pm and on Sundays it was 2-4pm and 6-8pm. The babies weren’t by the bedside, they were in a separate room behind glass. If visitors wanted to see them they just brought them up to the glass. At feeding times there were no visitors on the ward, just mothers and babies.

Working in a hospital as a nurse you learn to have a great respect for life, but we did have a social life too. We went out dancing. In those days we had the big bands and at weekends we went to the big dance halls. My father had a boat and in the summer we went sailing. I had lots of friends and we had a good time.

Moving to England

Meeting my husband, working for the London Ambulance Service

I came to England on holiday when I was still working as a nurse. I met my husband in London while I was on holiday and it developed from there. He came to Germany to see me and I went back to England and in 1960 we got married.

I was willing to nurse in England but they asked me to take another exam and I wasn’t willing to do that. So I went to the London Ambulance Service, I had to do a course and I passed with flying colours, I worked in the accident unit stationed, first of all in Waterloo and then outside Smithfield Market. I worked up to 1970 and then I had my son and I stopped working with the ambulance service.

Working with the ambulance service was totally different from working in a hospital. You got a call and you responded and London in those days was just as busy as it is now. So you had your finger on the ‘do-dah’ and went on the pavement and the police guided you through. You had to be at the accident about seven minutes after the call, if possible, at the latest. That’s what we tried to do. There were funny stories and sad stories. It was an eye-opener. It was totally different from nursing because we picked the people up when they were injured or ill and we handed them on to the hospital and then we left. When I worked in the hospital we would treat them. So it’s totally different.

I worked eight hours a day. There was a morning, an afternoon and a night shift. I preferred night duty because it was more interesting. You had lots of different cases to handle and you had to be more self-reliant at night because the doctors weren’t available, and we had no walkie-talkies or anything. We just had to get on with it. Nowadays the ambulance can call straight away to the doctors, we didn’t have any of that. We called ourselves paramedics anyway, and we did resuscitations and delivered babies. Nowadays the paramedics can give intravenous injections but we weren’t allowed to do that. It was much harder than nowadays, you had to decide for yourself what you should do.

There were highs and lows of course. Sometimes I wasn’t so happy, especially when there were injured children, deliberately injured by parents. That was a time when I thought that I couldn’t do it anymore. But you just have to grit your teeth. And then there were a lot of out-and-about homeless people in London, drunks. When we were called and they were lying in the street we had to pick them up. But we had an understanding. Sometimes we just took their clothes. I had to clean the ambulance out several times. Often we’d be called out to people who were mentally ill. They had to be forcefully taken to mental hospitals, we always had a police escort for that. And that was mostly done in the evenings when we were on night duty, never in the daytime. I cannot understand why.

I had a close encounter once. The policeman was putting a man in the back when the man nearly broke my hand. The policeman had to put him in hand cuffs. But these people couldn’t help it. They were ill. Or you’d be called to the Underground when somebody jumped and we’d have to pick up the pieces. Once I was called to a building site where the crane had overturned and a man had iron rods through him.

One day you would be the attendant and another day the driver. If you’re the attendant you are the one who had to go to the patient first. So it was me that day. We had to wait for the fire brigade and they cut the rods off. We had to put him in the manifold harness, which is a solid stretcher, built like a little canoe where you put the patient in and strap them in so nothing can move. We put him on the crane and they got us both down. I don’t like heights, but you do it. You just do your job. And we asked afterwards at Guy’s Hospital and the nurses told us that he was fine. He was okay. One arm was just damaged. We were always interested in cases like that.

We were called to the docks. There was a Polish freighter and a woman fell down the steep stairs. We had to take the manifold harness again and I was the attendant and I had to go with her and be lifted off high onto the pier. I had to hold on for dear life. We took her to Guy’s Hospital as that was the nearest. When I had done my job that day I was really ill. I can’t stand heights. You just do your job. But it’s rewarding too, very rewarding.

In those days you didn’t have the easy way with stretchers like you do today. We had canvas stretchers and we had to put the poles through the slots of two iron bars. We had to lift them from the floor up into the ambulance. There was no other way of doing it. And sometimes they were heavy. Sometimes we went into houses to the bedrooms upstairs and the staircase would go half way round so the one who was holding the stretcher at the bottom had all the weight and the one at the top had to guide. It wasn’t always easy. In each team there was a male and a female, you couldn’t have two females in a team. For instance we had a policeman all in his motor bike gear who was knocked down by a lorry and two females could not have lifted him, so you always had a man and a woman.

Towards the end before my son was born I started to get very bad back aches and I had to wear a corset and I was put on light duties in Waterloo Station. I then became pregnant and then I had to stop anyway. That was my working life. I always had the support of my husband. But unfortunately I lost him at Christmas four years ago. He always supported me whatever I did. That helped me a lot.

When my son was three years old he had meningitis I spotted it straight away because of my training. We lived in London then and I was in hospital straight away with him. He had a viral infection so that was all right. He’s 37 this year.

I remember lots of things that stick in my mind, it goes with the job, both nursing and ambulance. You get used to it but it’s very strange. A lot of people died in my arms, here in England as well. To me it’s nice that you can help them go into heaven. I say a prayer. I try to keep them calm. Sing them a song, whatever. Now they’re just sleeping. It’s a wonderful thing if you can do that.

I have a close friend who lives in a neighbouring village. I met her through singing and we found out that she worked in the ambulance at the same time as me. She had a child at the same time as me. She had arthritis the same time as me.

I thought that you were going to ask me about the war years. This I have to tell you. We German people did not know about the concentration camps. We were told there were zones where you couldn’t go. We were told they were prisoner of war camps, nothing else. And then they transported people like Jewish people at night. We didn’t know anything about it. We worked with them and they couldn’t talk about it. So we had no idea. And when it came out after the war it was a shock to us. I was a Hitler girl. Of course I was a Hitler girl, one hundred percent. You could go out at night in the street then. Nobody touched you. You could keep your doors open. You could leave your bicycle outside and it was still there next day. You see again, discipline.

Ramus (b.1931) talking to WISEArchive on 17th October 2007 in Fakenham

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