A bit of light relief this week.
I trained as a nurse in the seventies. I had long dreamed of fancy uniforms, handsome doctors and wiping fevered brows. I encountered all of these in various degrees but soon came to realise that there was a lot of hard work and long hours involved. The three years of training were often hard and many times I was tempted to give up. Had my school careers officer been right when he felt the best thing for me was to work at the local shirt factory back in my home town? Spurred on by the thought of an alternative life running up cuffs, collars and shirt tails, I kept going and I look back on my nursing career mostly with great affection. I can still remember some of my patients to this day, and the sadness and humour encountered along the way. I find too, that I have a pool of experience to work from which has helped me hugely with my writing career. Compassion and kindness, to me, are the foremost requirements for a good nurse, along with a calm exterior, but this calm exterior can crumble on the odd occasion….
I had been a student nurse for about six months and was gradually getting used to the unsociable hours, the baffling orders barked from the end of the ward and the mysterious terminology. A rigid routine emerged and seemed to supersede any eventuality. Ward work had to go on – always, and no matter what lurked behing the patient’s curtains. Soon I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but working within the hospital walls. Time off was limited and a social life was virtually non existent. But what made up for all the strict protocol was the patients themselves. People from all walks of life – rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown, in various circumstances, all together under one roof, all on a level playing field if you like, and all experiencing the challenges that illness brings.
It is a fact of human nature that when we are up against it we show our courage – courage we didn’t know we had, and sometimes in the darkest of situations we find some humour….
One ward I worked on was run like clockwork by an absolutely terrifying Ward Sister who had everyone, even the most senior doctors, quaking in their boots. She was tall, thin as a rake, had tightly permed hair and steel rimmed spectacles. I could not imagine her wearing anything but her pristine uniform and nor could I imagine her ever partaking in anything that required a modicum of fun. She only spoke to juniors like me when barking orders, the rest of the time we were required to flatten ourselves against the wall and be as inconspicuous as possible when she swept past us with her usual imperious look in place. She could convey her displeasure with the merest lift of an eyebrow as she viewed the overall tidiness of her ward – any stray newspaper or wrapper on a locker would be pounced on and woe betide the nurse who was remiss. One couldn’t doubt her dedication or the way her ward was run, however, and although the patients were totally in awe of her she was regarded with the utmost respect. Patient care was second to none and often she was still on her ward checking all was well long after her shift had ended.
One week we had a particularly rambunctious group of men on the ward – it was a men’s orthopaedic ward so usually they weren’t actually ill but perhaps recovering from operations or fractures. They usually got on well together and were often swapping lewd stories or jokes and the ambulant ones were often to be found playing cards in the day room. We had trouble keeping them under control at times but they soon learned to quieten down when Sister was around. We loved spending time chatting to these patients when we had the chance as they brought some normality to the ward and provided some light relief to the somewhat stifling atmosphere. One particular guy who I will call Jimmy had been on the ward for several weeks and became a great ally. He’d help with the tea trolley in the mornings and was allowed certain privileges. He also was good at helping the new patients settle in and he could be relied upon to keep an eye out for Sister and letting us know if she was on the warpath.
Tuesday morning at 11 am was always the Consultation’s ward round – this was particularly stressful if you were on duty as just being in the vicinity was nerve racking. You just prayed you weren’t asked a question you didn’t know the answer to or sent to look for something you couldn’t find and were made to look embarrassed in front of the whole team. On the exact stroke of 11 Sister would unlock the trolley bearing the patients notes and stand poised and ready for the off. The consultant would sweep in followed by a group of hapless looking medical students struggling to keep up. The group would slowly make the way round the ward, going from bed to bed – the Consultant firing questions both at the nervous patients in the beds and the quivering students who tended to be rendered speachless when asked even the simplest question about a patient’s condition. Sister, as usual was calm and collected and kept all running smoothly.
On particular Tuesday I was standing in my usual flattened position against the wall watching the round take place when I noticed to my horror that somehow a new patient unaware of ward protocol had unpacked some sandwiches he had brought in from home and had laid out a veritable picnic on his bed, complete with a napkin. He was also nonchalantly reading the newspaper whilst enjoying his sandwich at the same time. From my position by the wall I edged slowly down the Ward so as not to attract attention until I caught Jimmy’s eye. No words were needed. There was just a shocked look in Jimmy’s eyes followed by a slight twitch and slight loss of colour in his face. I can still see in my mind’s eye what happened next. In his boldly stripped standard issue hospital dressing gown, Jimmy somehow managed to move stealthy up the ward until he disappeared under the end bed. Slowly sliding along underneath, bed by bed, and keeping his stiff leg somehow angled to a safe position he kept going until he was level with Freddy, the new patient. A stripey arm appeared on the bed, feeling around for the sandwiches, and slowly both the napkin and the sandwiches disappeared from view. Freddy, realising his tasty snack was missing, peered out from behind his paper. Jimmy’s head appeared over the side of the bed.
“Fold your paper up mate and forget about your sandwiches quick as you like” whispered Jimmy from the corner of his mouth. “Stay where you are and say nothing!” With that, he ducked down again and slithered back down the ward. Luckily, the ward round was particularly slow on the day and the team had been seemingly unaware of the unusual actions of some of the patients! Freddy stayed like a statue for the rest of the ward round, even struggling to answer the Consultant when he asked him how he was.
The Consultant finished his round and went to have his customary cup of tea in Sister’s office and the lowly students ambled off, relieved it was over. I went to check on Jimmy, worried that his escapade may have set his recovery back a bit, but he was full of laughter.
The day carried on at its usual busy pace and all seemed in order. Sister came over to me at the end of the shift to dismiss me.
“You may go now Nurse. Make sure you dispose of those sandwiches on the way out”.
Maybe she was human after all.