Your Blood on my Hands (the Haematology Technician) (2012)

Location : Norfolk

Early life in Litcham and King's Lynn

I don't remember much of my childhood, I don't know why. My life essentially, where I remember, started when I would be about nine or ten. My father had a mobile shop and a shop in the village of Litcham. On Saturdays and in the school holidays, don't know whether I was allowed to go, I would think I was probably sent out with my father to help him on the rounds. We sold virtually anything. His main output was paraffin oil. We went round all the villages and I helped him. It was all right in the summertime, in the wintertime it got very cold and wet, but it was enjoyable. Whilst I wasn't paid for it, it was quite an enjoyable time. When I was a little older, and it was a school holiday, my father thought it would be a good idea if I used the cart which he had in the shop part and went round Litcham village. I would probably be about 11 by now and with my brother, who's four years younger, went round. We used to pull the cart around the village dropping off what people had ordered from the shop. I think that was on a Friday afternoon and that was my task. That went on for a number of years.

Also, he had a friend who ran a long-distance haulage company and on a Sunday morning his friend would pick me up in his lorry and I would go down with him to London to what is Borough market, which I think is near Borough Bridge, unload his lorry load of cabbages and then we would return through the early hours of Sunday night, well, Monday morning shall we say, because we couldn't drop off the cabbages until the midnight clock had struck – presumably that was some religious thing. So we dropped off the cabbages just after midnight and we dashed back to Norfolk and I would start school at 9 o'clock in the morning. (Laughs) So that was quite an interesting period of time.

Later on, I must have passed my test, because I went to King's Lynn Technical College and in the holiday times I did a milk round for a company in Holt. I used to go on my Lambretta scooter to Holt, do the milk rounds, sometimes I was allowed to drive the Morris Minor 1000 pick-up full up with bottles of milk and stuff. That was quite interesting and I quite enjoyed that. That went on for a few years.

After that – I was still at King's Lynn Technical College, I was actually studying science and engineering. I got my O-levels and I was persuaded to do A-levels and in the period of the time for doing the A-levels they got you to do other exams, which were called O*, which were sort of half way between the two and I got a couple of those in the maths side of things. The initial idea was I would go to university but I was struggling and I decided I would rather go to work than carry on and go to university. I thought I would have some money. I went after several jobs in the engineering line, down London and various places, but for some reason – probably because I wasn't qualified enough – I didn't get them.

Path lab at King's Lynn

Then on the off chance I happened to read the King's Lynn paper and there was a job going at the King's Lynn hospital in their path lab, and I thought, oh I'll go up and see what that's like. So I went in there and for some reason they decided "yes, you could be just the ideal person for us". So it was a small laboratory. There was a Chief Technician, a Senior, and I think there were two or three others. So I started there. In fact I was there for two years and it was quite interesting. Just before I left, I used to be mainly in the haematology department which is studying red cells and white cells and what is known as haemoglobin. And a blood count would consist of various parts. We would perhaps do, on a really busy day, 40 samples between me and the senior technician.

When we started off, we had a machine which actually measured the haemoglobin. You put the diluted blood in the colorimeter which measured the optical density. You would then read it off a chart and you would say: this patient's got a haemoglobin of … 85 percent. I can't for the life of me remember what the normal in milligrams was in those days because they had three or four standards for measuring haemoglobin. As for counting the red cells and white cells, we used to dilute the blood down on a special microscope slide which had a graduated scale, or a graduated pattern, and you put a cover slip on and the blood went between the cover slip and that was exactly one millimetre deep. Then you started your count of the cells in the various little squares. I forget how many squares you had to do, but you did that for red cells and white cells and what is known as platelets, which are the things which help the blood clot.

I never actually did any of what is known as differential, the breaking down of the white cells into the various sorts, neurophils, basophils, eosinophils, lymphocytes and monocytes, which are the basic five types of white cells. My senior technician used to do that. You would make a smear of blood on the slide, you'd stain it with what was known as Leischman's stain, which is a blue stain, and it would stain up the various cells and the granules in them would stain different colours. Basophils were black, and the eosinophil granules were an orangey-yellow colour, monocytes and lymphocytes were totally different anyway. You used to look down and you would count a hundred cells and you would know how many of each sort there were. We didn't do that many of them, we only counted those when people had things like leukaemia, or the white count was either too low or outside the normal range of the lower or upper limit. I think 11 was the upper limit and 5 was the lower limit. That went very well. Having been there for about I suppose eight weeks, they decided perhaps I ought to, now I had got into the place, learn how to take blood. They decided I would learn to take finger-pricks, where you prick someone's finger, suck up some blood in a tube with diluting fluid and things, and process it there. We used to have the outpatients come in and a little room on the outside of the actual laboratory, it was still within the same building, and that was my first task. I had a go at a couple of patients, and that was all right. Then they decided, "right you've had a go at that, D., you can go onto the wards and do it." So I went off and I saw the first patient and I stabbed the person's thumb and I didn't get anything out of it. So I went back and I said, "Oh I couldn't do it." "Yes, you can, go back, you're not returning until you've got that sample." So off I went and it was just that I was being too gentle I suppose.

That was another thing, the thing we used to prick people's fingers with was a great big thick needle, called a Hagedorn needle, it was stuck into a cork, the cork and the needle was then inserted into a bottle which contained methylated spirits. And we would go round the different patients, so I'd see you first, take your blood and stick the needle back in the bottle. Then I'd go and see you, and I'd go and see the other five or six people. The same needle was always used for the same job. The only thing about it was it went into this meths spirit. Thinking about it from today's way of thinking, it was horrendous, but to my knowledge no-one ever came to any harm on it. One of the funniest incidents was, on a very hot summer's day I had gone onto the maternity ward to check someone's haemoglobin, having had their delivery, and as I pricked the patient's thumb, it shot out and hit the ceiling, and there was a red splatter on the ceiling!

Anyway, that went on for a while and they decided, "D., I think it's about time you learnt to use a needle and a syringe." "Yeah, all right, E." "B.'s a diabetic and she says it's all right, you can practice on her."

[B. was] one of the other technicians. She was in the lab. So we did it in the lab. In those days we didn't have proper tourniquets, we had a bit of rubber tubing wrapped round, tied it in a knot to bring up the vein, we had glass syringes which we used to sterilize. You'd sharpen the needles occasionally on an oil stone, the needles and the syringes were sterilised, I have to say.

So anyway, E. described how it was going to go and had already shown me on a patient, so it was the time to practice on B. So I stuck the needle in B.'s arm, into the vein and I started to pull it out and there was blood! And I said, "Hey, E., I've got blood!" and in all my excitement I just pulled the needle out of her arm and I'd got blood dripping out of the syringe, and I'd got blood dripping out of her arm … so that was quite exciting!

I got through that, and then I was sent out on my own to do that sort of stuff. It wasn't a difficult job, it was just a matter of practicing. A funny incident which did happen at the lab while I was there, the office overlooked the place where the patients used to sit. The patients who wanted the blood to be actually taken from the vein used to go into the boss's office and we used to do it in there, but if it was just a finger-prick we would go round them in the waiting room. There was no privacy in those days. B., who was diabetic, as I said, went out there to see this patient, and I was sitting in the haematology lab – there was the haematology office and the patients – and then F. the girl in the office, said, "D., I don't know if B.'s all right, but she's had this lady's thumb for a couple of minutes now." Anyway, I went out there, she'd stabbed the lady's thumb, got the things ready to suck up the blood into the pipette, but she had gone into a [diabetic] coma. I dabbed a bit of cotton wool onto the lady's thumb and shouted to F.? "Go and get the boss !!!" So he went off and got Mr J., his name was. So he came out and sorted her out and he said, "We'll sit her down, and go and get some of those lumps of sugar" – ‘cos we used to make our own tea. He mixed some sugar up with some water and he poured that down her throat and after a few minutes she came round.

Other crazy incidents which happened at the same time … we had a diabetic patient there who was told if he ever felt himself going into a coma, he was to drive into the hospital and get his blood checked …! All right, I accept that there were no cars on the road in those days, but this chap lived nearly twenty miles away from the hospital. And that was his instruction "If you feel yourself going into a coma, get yourself to the hospital …". You wouldn't believe some of the things which I have heard.

As I say, I was there about two years, and it was about 18 months before they decided, "I suppose you really ought to be doing some training, D." So they did start to teach me one or two things. I mean I had learnt how to do things on a one to one basis, but I'd never been taught the theory of it. So I went and did a bit of haematology and a bit of chemistry, and I did bacteriology, which is culturing various things. I never actually did any histology, which is cutting up tissues, but I was taken in there. And that's another issue, we used to have in those days a big machine – it used to have about ten giant beakers about that wide (demonstrates) and they used to be filled up with things like benzene and xylene and various alcohols. Xylene, since I've been in the trade, has been made carcinogenic. This was in an open top bottle in the lab and it was just dumped around. But we just all got on with it.

Being on call at the Norfolk and Norwich

After about two years, I then decided that … I was on my own at King's Lynn. I was living at Litcham still so I was about 15 miles from my home anyway, so I thought I might as well see if I could get a job in Norwich. I don't know why I went to Norwich, but anyway there was a job going in Norwich and I got in to their haematology department.

Mrs M.: Wasn't it so you could get trained?

I don't know – so I went to Norwich. I did get formal training there. It was a bigger laboratory and most of the techniques were virtually the same as they were at King's Lynn with one major exception. Measuring haemoglobins was about a hundred years earlier. They had got this machine which was known as a grey Wedge photometer. It was like a telescope, it had a gelatine disk- a wedge-shaped gelatine disk. It had a green filter, the dilute blood was red, so it sorted out the right colours. So we used to use this to measure the haemoglobin. It was a reasonably accurate machine. However, one day they discovered that D. was very good, he was virtually spot-on with everyone else when he started. Within half an hour, he was up to twenty percent out. My results were twenty percent inaccurate, in other words. So the director, who was Dr. M.H., decided that D. had to have his eyes tested. So I was frogmarched down to the eye department and I had my eyes tested and I was found to have colour blindness. I had a green colour blindness, or something. So this was a disaster. So on my return it was ordered that the haematology department would have to have a colorimeter. As it happened, the chemists had two or three spare colorimeters that had never been used, in their cupboard. So we actually got a colorimeter.

I suppose about a year later, we then progressed from having to count the cells under a microscope to actually having a machine that would count them! I can't remember all the facts about that now, but you diluted the blood down, stuck it into the machine and it would count the red cells and if you diluted it a different amount it would then count the white cells. We then had this machine which is called a haemoglobinometer, which did basically the same thing as the colorimeter, instead of giving the result as an optical density it would actually give it as grams of haemoglobin. So that was a major step forward. And we progressed with this system for I suppose, what, about another two, three years. We were processing perhaps 40 or 50 blood counts a day. The girls would look under the microscope and differentiate the white cells in the same old-fashioned method, but we had moved on from actually having to count the white cells and red cells into actually looking at them.

Going back to counting the red cells and the white cells, when I first went to Norwich we used to measure a thing called a colour index. You have got to remember you divided what was known as pack cell volume by the red count. It had to be less than one and if it wasn't you had to do the red count again, and after having done it three times you then worked out what one would be and you would write down: "oh yes, the red count should be … 5.3". That's how it was in those days. Pack cell volume used to just get ordinary blood, suck it into a very thin capillary tube, dip the end in some plasticine-type material, stick it in this machine which spun it round at 20,000 r.p.m. and then you would have like a slide rule to put your capillary tube on and you could read where the intersection between the red cells and the plasma white cells was on the top.

After about three years we progressed on to a machine which actually did measure the haemoglobin. It measured the white cells, counted the number of platelets, counted the red cells, measured the pack cell volume, and it calculated what was known as the mean corpuscular haemoglobin concentration. Which is the amount of haemoglobin in a cell, and it counted out what the average size of the red cell was – the mean corpuscular volume. So that gave seven parameters. We still had to look under the microscope and break the white cells down into their various sorts, but never mind. That was an inconvenience but we got through. But we were then pushing through perhaps a hundred to a hundred and fifty counts a day. And after that, or whilst that was all going on, at nighttimes, after hours we had what was called an on-call service. I did that after I'd been there for about 18 months/two years and then someone left – there were four of us who used to deal with the on-call. They would call us up at home and say, will you come in and such and such. I'd learned how to cross-match blood – that's your blood – with bottles I'd got in the fridge, which is a matter of blood-grouping it and then picking the right blood group, mixing the two together to make sure there was no problems with it. Anyway, you would go home at half past five and you would sit there having your dinner or tea, and then the telephone would ring. "Could you please come in and do a haemoglobin and white count and a red count on this patient." Or "can you come in and do a blood count and cross-match three pints of blood for this patient's gone to theatre to have a caesarean section", or whatever. It was quite fun but you sometimes got bad nights and you'd be called up at 11 o'clock at night, you'd get home at perhaps about 12 and you'd be nicely asleep at about 2 o'clock and the phone would go again and then perhaps a third time.

Two incidents which come to mind which happened in that time. One was overnight, I'd been in several times during the evening, and then about 3 o'clock in the morning, I suppose it would be, I was called in by the casualty department. "Could you please come in, we've had a plane crash in … (some distant airfield), and there's two or three patients coming in." It was only a small light aircraft, it weren't a big passenger plane! I'd been obviously bushwhacked, because I didn't … An hour later I got another call through, "Are you coming in?" "Oh yes, yes, yes." "It's not quite so urgent as before, one of the passengers in the plane has died, and we've got another one here now, we want some bloods and things done." So I was really woken up by this time, and I got in there. It turns out that this chap was covered in blood, but it wasn't his, it was the other chap's, once they'd cleaned him all down. So essentially all I had to do was come in, do a blood count on him, and cross-match a couple of pints of blood to make sure that he was all right for the rest of the night.

Occasionally we would be sent down to casualty to bleed the patients. And I was up there working in the lab and "Oh, can you come down, we've got a patient in who we need to have this that and the other done on". I got down there and mentioned to the person on the casualty desk, "Where's such and such?" "Oh, they're in the theatre" – which was a small theatre attached to the side of the casualty department – "you'll have to go in there". So I went in there, and I got in and I nearly died! The patient was on the table and he was surrounded by people – most of whom were covered in blood . My first thought was "aggh …" I was about to pass out. I don't know why, I suddenly had the forethought and I turned round and sat on the bench outside the casualty department and put my head down. I then got up a few minutes later and said, "Look, they're not going to have time to sort you out if you pass out, so I'm just going to have to go in there and get on with it. Fortunately for me, one of the doctors had actually taken some blood. Most of them seemed to be in a state of panic, shall I say! I'm not sure they were, but one of them – the doctor – he had an uncool manner about him. I can't remember where he came from, but he took a chair – a seat – with him and he sat down. And I saw him do three things. He sat down and he did one thing, he would pick up his chair, ask someone to move, and he would move over to the next thing, and he would do that. On the third thing, it was to get some blood, he asked someone else to move, he sat down – whilst all the others were sort of fighting over themselves, he just casually got on with the job. The patient lived – which is quite a good thing! He just handed me the bloods and took it back.

That was that. What happened then? … Oh, one of my jobs was to go down to the Jenny Lind hospital where I met my wife. I suppose three or four years down at the Jenny Lind in two spells I think. We had our own little laboratory where we could do blood counts, haemoglobin, white count, red counts. But mostly it was collecting blood in little tubes and taking it back to the main lab, it was quite fun. The children were, in general, very good. They were generally quite frightened. [Mrs. M: they were usually held, weren't they?] It was quite an interesting time. I can't think of only one bad incident down there when I had a blazing row with a doctor on the baby block. I'd gone down there to bleed this young baby and I went down there and pricked its heel like we always did. I couldn't get anything out of it. And so I went and said, look I'm very sorry, I can't get this blood so we'll have to either do without it or do it yourself. And he said, I'm not accepting that, the baby's going to die within the next few hours anyway, you keep pricking it until you get it. I said, well look, as far as I'm concerned that's it, I'm not going. And on my way out from the babies' block I ran into the consultant and I told him. He said, "You did exactly the right thing". And that's the last I ever heard of that.

The other funny incident, again on the baby block. I'd been down to prick this baby's heel and there was a doctor down there who was about to do the same thing herself. I walked into the little cubicle. She'd got a nurse with her, and the thing she asked for was a spirit lamp, some methylated spirits, and a syringe needle. I watched her in horror! The first thing she did was lit the spirit lamp … then she was going to heat the methylated spirits over the little spirit lamp. I said, look you can't do this, because the meths will catch fire. That never actually took place … we got the spirit lamp out, and put on one side. Then she got the book out and she said, "Ah yes, you swab the baby's heel with meths spirit" (and she did), then "Ah yes, stab the baby's heel" – back to the baby (stabbed the baby's heel), then back to the book: picking the heel up, squeezing it, etc, right .. By which time the baby's heel had stopped, so I said, "Would you like me to do it, doctor, and show you how we in the lab do it?" "Well, if you think you can do it", she said. "Well I have done a few before." So I said, "This is how we do it: You swab the baby's heel, put a smear of Vaseline over the cut, stab through the cut, it then forms a nice … keeps it in one place, prick the heel and then straight in. Filled up my little tube. "How'd you do that then?!" I said, "Well, quite a few years practice". But that was that. So that's how I come to meet my wife, M. M. was on one of the wards and I just happened to bump into her.

Coming back to my time at the Norfolk and Norwich. I then decided that … I had been there several years, and I thought , I need to get away from here, I'm getting into a bit of a rut. There was a job advertised in the professional magazine in Orkney. "Oh, this is a good idea." So I applied for it. Unfortunately I didn't get it. And I also applied for a job in Boston in Lincolnshire. Unbeknown to me the post had already been given to someone, but they had to advertise and they had to interview people. I was only up there just to comply with the rules and regulations. Anyway, that went by the by and so a couple of years after that a job came up at Cromer hospital and they wanted a Senior Technician over there. I was only a junior at the time, so I said I was interested, and I got the job.

Senior technician at Cromer

I went to Cromer in 1979 and I stayed there till it closed. Yeah, that was interesting. The Chief Technician had just been appointed and he was ex-R.A.F. and in charge of what was known as the Chemistry department. J., who was the other technician who was down there, was in charge of haematology and they wanted someone to do the blood transfusion. So I went down there and the rules of the post was that if J. got his exam (‘cos I'd already decided I wasn't going to do my final exam) if J. got his exam before I'd completed my ten years of service, he'd get the senior post, otherwise I would. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, J. decided he was going to move on. So I got the senior post after ten years.

Mrs M.: So you didn't do the exam, you got it by working ten years.

So I became senior in haematology and blood transfusion. I had a technician. When J. left I had a technician, another ex-R.A.F. called De., he did the haematology and I did the blood transfusion. At night times, there was only the three of us so we did one week in three. A whole week at a time. F. did it (he was the chemist) one week, De. the next, and I would the next. The system broke down a little every now and again because F. would have a holiday for a couple of weeks and it meant that J. and I were on alternate weeks which became a bit tiring. (Mrs. M.: You were well paid for it.) Oh yes … I'm not moaning, but … I can't remember what the pay was. I was living at Salhouse when it first started. (Mrs. M.: We were already married by then.) I was living at Salhouse and had to travel from Salhouse to Cromer every day which was quite a journey. Having started there in February, I think I had been there about a month and I then had to have a week off because we had blizzards. On my way home – I just about made it home – when I got up the following morning you couldn't move anywhere. So that was that. But the others carried on; there weren't that many patients … because no-one could move.

I can't remember exactly when it was, but they decided that the lab should shut. In the meantime we had got more newer equipment which by now would actually not only count the cells, measure the haemoglobin, it would also divide the white cells into their various sorts – into the basophils, eosinophils and platelets and all the rest of them. It was really good. We had a machine which would measure what is known as the prothrombin time. When you put someone on an anticoagulant you had to be sure that the dose you were giving them was sufficient and that again brings up … we used to have them come in to the lab on a Thursday morning, have their bloods taken, we would test their prothrombin time. (I think it was then called an INR which was an international normalised ratio). The doctor would then write to them and they would change their dose according to what the doctor had written.

There were two incidents: One was a patient of Addenbrookes, who was asked to come to us because he was close. We could never get him in control, his results were always far too low, which essentially meant that the drugs he had been given to thin his blood down, for want of a better term, weren't working and he was having quite high doses. And Addenbrookes kept … so in the end the doctor said, "Look, if you want us to bleed this patient we will look after his dosage as well. And it turned out that he needed about two and a half times as much of the warfarin as a normal person would. Because we actually accused this patient of not taking his drugs. We said to him "Look, we're not taking your blood. We're not going to do you anymore." We wrote to the consultant. As I say, it turned out that he was just resistant to the warfarin and he had really high dosage.

Then there was the other patient of course, who was illiterate. The doctor would write him a thing down and he just … of course we couldn't keep him in control and it turned out that he just didn't know what he was supposed to be taking. The system was then changed so you could have your blood done and the doctor would see you straight away. And that's when it all came to light. He couldn't actually read.

He'd never said anything?

No.

We had an anticoagulant clinic – which was a face to face clinic – in Norwich before I left. And there one of the medical doctors used to come down and on this particular day a patient had come along, we took her blood and the doctor was discussing things and he was saying, "You're a bit overweight, Mrs. …." he would say. I think you should go on a diet. So he gave this lady a diet. We took her bloods and everything else. The bloods were fine. Anyway, the next time she came back, the registrar (which is not quite a consultant – between an ordinary doctor and a consultant ) turned round to this lady and said. "We'd better weigh you". And she put her on the scales and she said, "That's rather strange, you've actually gone up in weight. How are you getting on with your diet?" And the lady turned round and said, "Oh, very well doctor. It's turned out really well." "Oh", she said, "Can you tell me what you had for breakfast today." She said, "Oh, eggs and bacon, and this that and the other." "But they're not on your diet." "Oh no, I had that first!" So we did hear some very funny bits.

I was actually a haematology technician. Some of my colleagues used to think that they were haematologists. A haematologist is a consultant. There is a slight technical difference! My attitude to life was that I'm a haematology technician. I'm not interested in the medical side of things. The doctor is in charge of the medical. I will look after the blood tests. I know what I am doing with my blood tests. I don't know what you're doing with the patient. That's between you him, to make sure you get the right answers. Of course we did have doctors, especially the chemists, who would send down some blood. "Can you do what is known as electrolytes?" So you do these tests. "All right … can you do another batch of tests?" "Yes." So the technician would do another batch of tests. (This was usually in the night time.) Sometimes there would be a third test. "Right, I've got this, that and the other. Now this patient could have this, that or the other from this. Can you tell me which it is?" Go to your Registrar and get him to sort it out. I am not the doctor, I'm only the technician, I'm not here to diagnose your patients for you. So we had things like that.

The new Norfolk and Norwich

Back to Cromer – we did have this high class technology. And then they decided that they would close the lab so I was sent back to Norwich. Which wasn't too bad to start with. It was the old Norfolk and Norwich on St Stephen's Road. I used to drive to the West Norwich Hospital, park the car and they provided a shuttle bus from there to the Norfolk and Norwich, do the work, get on the shuttle bus in the evening and that took me back and I would go home. Then they decided, or they had already made up their mind, that we were going to move up to the Colney site. Which was one of the reasons for shutting the lab. They needed myself and the other person in the lab to be there to oversee … not oversee, to help, the move to Colney. And that became a real nightmare. There were no windows in the lab at all. So you were in a room – there was a corridor down the outside but you couldn't actually see out. You had no idea whether it was nine o'clock at night or three o'clock on a nice hot sunny afternoon. It was exactly the same. It was demoralizing. The work by now had increased horrendously. We had two or three machines and we were pumping through perhaps four or five hundred blood counts a day. I didn't actually do on-call when I got back to Norwich. I was supposed to go round haematology, the coagulation department and the blood transfusion and the chemistry department so I could help them all out on call. But for some reason I was never allowed in the coagulation department. I went to the other three bits. And so I never actually did the on-call, which was quite nice anyway.

Mrs M.: Though it did mean a drop in income – of about a quarter.

It was a sort of a shift system. At half past five in the evening you took over and you packed up at nine o'clock the following morning. You were there on your own. But that was good, you had these machines. But this was the demoralising part about it, when I decided I had had enough. You filled the machines up with just blood samples, they went into little racks, loaded the racks on the machine, the machine did everything, it dumped onto a computer system and the amount of work we had to go through it was a matter of quickly scanning through the results. Are these normal? I think if they were abnormal they showed up hatched or something – they still had black and white screens. If they were normal results you just authorized them and they were sent out. If they were abnormal you would make a blood film so that someone could look at it or things like that. But I didn't have enough time to actually sit down and say. "I think I'd like to look at this one again," for some reason.

I was older, but I would like to say that throughout all this time we did have strict controls on what results were going out. It wasn't a matter of just doing the work, we used to participate in a national quality control scheme which was a once a month thing. You analysed the three bloods which were sent, the results would go off and then they were compared with the nation's. We were always very high up on the list of labs and on a daily basis we put control samples through anyway. We knew that the results which were going out were within very close tolerances. It was just this irritating niggle that the result might well be normal but it could be significant. You see, normal range for haemoglobin is 11.5 to about 14.8. You could have a man with a haemoglobin of 12.5 today, in a couple of days time it could be 12. They are very close. They are both normal. The following week it could be 11.5, well that's not bad really, there's only half a gram between the middle point. That's normal, and it wasn't until it actually dropped out of the normal range that you knew there was something wrong. This patient could actually be bleeding away, you see. But in the old days we would have seen it. We'd have known what the previous result was, we could have then said "oh look, it's actually falling. The doctor might not have realized but you could then ring him up and say, "Look, this haemoglobin is actually falling, it's not just the same result fluctuating about the same. It was generally appreciated, I think, by a lot of the doctors that you were able to just let them know a bit in advance.

It's all very well till someone's got hardly any haemoglobin left, they have bled most of their blood out. Which is what happens with a lot of patients, they don't go to see the doctor and you see them and they want massive blood transfusions … that brings up other concerns, religious I suppose you could call them. I was involved in a young child in my first stay at the Norfolk and Norwich who subsequently … no, he didn't die in the end. He needed a blood transfusion. They were Jehovah's Witnesses, parents refused to allow a transfusion. I told my consultant, "I've cross-matched the blood, done it, patient's parents won't consent". He had a word with the consultant and they went to Court and the Court made a child a Ward of Court and the child was given a transfusion and lived. There was another incident of a lady who actually died. She needed a blood transfusion. Because she was an adult they couldn't do anything about it. She said, "No, I'm a Jehovah's Witness, you must not take blood". Which is misconstruing what the idea is. Their religious idea is that you shouldn't kill someone, take their blood. But no, they've got this idea that you shouldn't have it. So this poor lady died.

Mrs. M. One of the reasons you retired was because of the travelling, wasn't it?

Yes. I mean from here to Colney Lane …

Interviewer: You were here in North Walsham then?

… is not such a long journey … If I went from here to the Ring Road and followed the Ring Road round it used to take me at the time I was going, because I had to be there at nine o'clock in the morning, I used to leave work at half past five in the evening … It would take me a good hour and a half, hour and three quarters to get there. And in the end I found that I could do it in just over an hour by going from here to Scottow, cut through from Scottow through Buxton, out through the other side of Buxton, through Stratton Strawless, up past Taverham nurseries, over Ringland Hills, onto the southern bypass, and then come up the Watton road. I could do that journey in just over an hour. It was at least half an hour shorter. It then became rather tiring anyway and I had the opportunity to retire when I was sixty. I spent most of my working life participating in the on-call service, which at its best was one night in five and at its worst was one night in three. Forgetting the time when F. was on holiday and it was one in three. I had the chance when I was sixty to be able to retire because I'd then done my forty years of service. And so I said yes, I'll go then. Never regretted it, it's been the best decision I ever made.

Industrial action in 1982

[The following section has been inserted here for ease of reading. Ed.]

My life's been good anyway. But there are funny stories. In today's paper there is a picture of some industrial action in 1982. At the Norfolk and Norwich there were a lot of the people in the lab went on a strike sort of thing – not a complete strike like they have today but a few hours strike. The on-call staff at the Norfolk and Norwich, not the West Norwich which didn't back the strike, decided that they should back the Union. We had a rota and you'd be on call tonight and I'd be on call another night. We came up with this idea that we'd have a rota and we'd agree who was going to be on call. But we wouldn't tell the switchboard who was going to be on call. It was up to them to find out. So to make it more difficult we decided that I'd be on till midnight and you would be on from midnight till the following morning. Anyway we stuck that out for a few days and we took pity on the switchboard operators who were not the people we were meant to inconvenience. So we said we were going to give up this idea and we went back to the normal rota system. Only to hear from the switchboard people that they were 100 percent behind us and thought we were wrong actually to stop it.

The last thing we actually wanted to do was to inconvenience the patients themselves. We also gave the consultants a list of who was on call each night. The chemistry consultant got his list, the haematology consultants got their list. And so they actually knew and we said to them "It's up to you whether you want to tell the switchboard who is on call, you know". In case there is something really urgent. Because 99 percent of the time it isn't really urgent, they just want something done most times.

A lot of the time it was not really wanted at all. But occasionally people's lives actually depended on what we did and the last thing we wanted to do … if the switchboard spent half an hour trying to find out who was on call, the poor old patient was suffering in the meantime. It never occurred and the switchboard of course always knew that at six o'clock they'd spoken to you and they knew that if they phoned you later you would say "No, I'm not on call." But they knew if it was urgent they could contact the consultant who would immediately sidetrack everything.

Mrs M. (Looking at newspaper photo.) Now this strike. You are not on this photo, but interestingly enough people are asking for 12 or 15 percent pay rises!

Retirement and family memories

Mrs M.: I was surprised because he had spent all his working life saying "I'm not going to retire until I'm 65. I'm not going till I'm 65." So when he actually retired I was really shocked.

I've never regretted it. I've never wanted a job back. I don't envisage ever wanting a job back. I'm very happy doing what I want when I want and I suppose, if I want to some extent. ‘Cos most of the time it is … I do suffer sometimes in the winter time – I'm not as good in the winter time, I've had several courses of antidepressants but I've now realized when it is coming on and I've kept away from the doctor for the last four or five years. I just say to myself, "Oh, it's winter time, I won't do it today". I go out in the garden and after about ten minutes I get fed up with doing it – I get fed up with doing nothing. But I now get in my mind it is the time of the year that if I feel like going in the garden I'll go in the garden. If I don't feel like going in the garden I'll just find something to do. I try to keep out of M.'s way. She wouldn't agree, but I try not to pass on my problems to her, but it's one of those things …

Mrs M. Well, depression affects everybody doesn't it. I don't get depressed in winter. What depresses me is the snow and ice because it forces me indoors and I can't get out. I daren't go out in my electric wheelchair, or the car.

Interviewer: You were telling me about the Open University. Have you done that since you retired?

I did that when I started.

Mrs M. You started before, when you were at work.

I progressed on for a number of years.

Mrs M. Eight! Just doing a bit each year.

Then as I said before, I answered this questionnaire in a magazine about dyslexia and thought I had it. I mentioned it to the people in Cambridge who said, "Yes, you ought to have a proper test." So I had a proper test. From there I was very interested to know whether I had or not. I could have waited while they decided and when she said "Yes, from all these questions you ask it looks like a good thing" I then decided to pay the £100 I think it was, to be properly diagnosed with it rather than to hang on till they decided. As I say, I went out to this place just the other side of Titchwell, and the first thing she said in her report was that Mr. M. was 15 minutes late because he couldn't understand my instructions. (Laughs)

The other thing was that I can only take in eight words at a time. And the person who came out to see if I needed any help who told me I mustn't study for more than half an hour, twenty minutes, needed an extra half an hour in my exams, said that there is nothing wrong with my brain. (Although most people would disagree with that!) But anyway it is just like I've got a normal size house but I've got a door where only one person can get in. So I have to wait until I've got the information. I have got to wait for that information to go through the door to get filed before the next person can go in. He said, once it's in there it can be filed like anything else. The same thing happens when it wants to come out. It gets to the door but has to wait till the person who's going through the door has cleared away. Whereas normal people can take two or three in at the door.

Mrs M. But you always passed the exams, didn't you.

But they were a strain.

I did maths mainly. And a few computing courses. But I gave up in the end. I decided the outcome wasn't … You see, a degree wasn't going to make any difference to my life. I'd already retired by that time. I think if I'd been a lot younger I might have had just that little extra amount of motivation to push myself to go to the end but I decided, no, it was a really tiring problem. As the course became more complex it took longer and longer. I was taking perhaps half a day to read two or three pages of the blooming book. Whereas most people a fortnight's study (for me) they could breeze through in a week. For me it was taking half a day virtually every day to try and get through it.

I have read a series of books: The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. I have managed to read that series. Now I don't know what the reason is about it. I could actually get through a whole chapter at a time without falling asleep. I don't know whether the sentences are relatively short and the paragraphs. You see what happens with normal stuff, I can get to about seven words and then I have sort of lost what's gone on before so I have to start again and gradually build up. So I might go through a sentence two or three times by then to find the whole context of the paragraph I've been through it so many times.

Mrs M. But then you are very good on technical things, aren't you? Like the computer – installing software on the computer which I am not very good at or very patient at. D. will know what to do next.

Well, it's an interest of mine. There's not much reading involved with it. I can't actually read off the screen. If it is something important I have to print it off and then I can read it at my leisure in my own time. I enjoy things like that. I enjoy going on holiday. I've got the grandchildren, with more on the way. Two more on the way. Our lot come along like buses. Two at a time. I mean C. and A. had babies within a month of each other. C. then had another one about two years ago, that is to say about half way between then and now and then all of a sudden A. and R., the youngest ones, announced they were having babies.

Break.

[Interviewer mentions she lived in Italy.]

My dad when he was in the war was stationed in Brindisi I think it was. He was left in charge one night – he was a corporal or something. Anyway he was left in charge of the maintenance thing. They had a lot of Italians working with them and they didn't like working with benzene to clean the engine components. So unbeknown to him the Italians switched the benzene for petrol. But the Italians smoked a lot and the place went up in smoke. So my dad's claim to fame in Italy is being in charge when the lot went up in smoke.

He was left in charge that night. The Italians unbeknown to him … I don't know whether he was asleep or what … but anyway they switched the diesel for benzene – which was diesel obviously – for petrol and set the place on fire.

Mrs M. He was also stationed in Venice at one stage. Because that was where he met his Italian friend.

He'd been in North Africa and it would appear that soldiers used to do quite nasty things. A peasant farmer, I suppose, had just collected his oranges and when they got up the hill they tipped his oranges about and let them all run down. I don't think my father [was directly involved]. You know it was one of these cruel acts … not an act of war so much but these silly young people.

Mrs. M. They were children. D.'s dad would have been 19.

Oh a stupid game. Oh let's see him run down after his oranges. Not thinking anything other than what a good laugh it would be.

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