Before I forget – Janet Likeman Set 128

Heather holding the book "a collection of memories"

Before I forget – Janet Likeman Set 128

18th September 1955, a date imprinted on my mind as my transition from naïve schoolgirl to grown up.

Three weeks after my eighteenth birthday my father deposited me with my regulation one suitcase and one trunk at the door of the Nurses’ Home in Huntley Street. I had no idea what to expect, but soon found out that what Sister Hayward, Home Sister, said was the rule of law.

I was one of the two dozen or so members of Set 128 who were allocated rooms in the Home. We unpacked and laid out the items listed as necessary to bring with us: four collar studs, four large ‘nappy’ pins, some white Kirby grips, some small safety pins and an old toothbrush. What possible use would the toothbrush be put to? Eventually we assembled to be taken in small groups to the Laundry room where our uniforms were given out. Three pale blue and white striped dresses, four very stiffly starched collars, twelve starched aprons, six pairs of starched cuffs to be buttoned onto our sleeves (where the starch would scarify the tender skin at the top of our arms), three or four stiff white belts and three or four pieces of starched white fabric, a semi circle with a rectangle of double fabric along the straight edge to make into caps. How of earth was that to be achieved? That’s where the toothbrush came in, A drawstring of tape ran around the edge of the semicircle which, when dampened using the toothbrush and judicious amount of water would gather up to create the little cap with a frill at the back. Depending on the ingenuity of the individual nurse, the result could be anything from a dinky little ‘fascinator’ to a bonnet which reminded me of the girl in the Ovaltine advert. The white Kirby grips kept your cap in place.

Our dresses were carefully measured to make sure they were long enough. I remember hearing that they should be long enough that, when bending, your popliteal space should not be visible. What erotic thoughts my popliteal space might arouse in the male patients I could not imagine! A collar was fastened to the neck of the dress with one stud at the back and a closing the neck at the front. As the collar arrived perfectly flat, it was necessary to fold and curl it round to fit. To prevent the collar from scrapping, we rubbed a bar of dry soap around the inner edge. This technique was also used of the cuffs. Over the years most of us developed a small mark where the collar stud had rubbed along with the scratched area on the arms from the starched cuffs.

Aprons were starched and the folds needed to be pulled apart to fit around our hips. The large nappy pins fastened the waistband and kept the straps from the bib in place. Over this we had a starched white belt, again fastened with studs. With hindsight, mountains of starch must have been used to keep nurses everywhere trim.

Over the years, the colour of your belt indicated who far advanced in your training you were; a striped belt showed you were in the third year and working towards your State Finals. Once qualified, you were given a length of cornflower blue petersham ribbon and a UCH belt buckle. At the end of that first year the colour changed to red, indicating you had survived the rigours of four years hard, but satisfying, work.

Home Sister Hayward was a nurse of the old school who ruled Huntley Street with a rod of iron. She could be kind and sympathetic when a nurse was ill, enveloping your head in a towel over a Nelson’s inhaler full of Friar’s Balsam when one had a heavy cold. But woe betide anyone whose uniform was less than regulation. She held the keys to our rooms and could enter at anytime to check our tidiness, any inform us sternly that if our rooms were untidy it could indicate our approach to nursing was likely to follow the same line. Whilst we were in PTS we had a curfew of 10 pm and had to sign a book kept near the front door. One or to of my set were in their late 20s and felt this was patronising women who had held jobs in teaching etc. However, most of us found ways to circumvent this rule, becoming adept at forging our friends’ signatures. Of course, the wicked stop out had to sneak in through Casualty, dodging Night Sister doing her rounds as she patrolled the hospital using the underground tunnels. Once you regained your room, it was necessary to remove the key from the outside of the door as a swinging key gave away that the occupant had probably only just come home.

For the first three months we had lectures and practical training in the School of Nursing. The lectures on anatomy and physiology and the different ways disease can affect a body and treatments available to help were probably much the same as today, except that there are so many more diseases and methods of treatment today and our three months would not suffice.

Today’s nurses would be astonished at the practical things we had to do. Every procedure had a tray or a trolley laid out to accomplish the treatment and that trolley had to be laid with sterile cloths from a drum of autoclaved items after it had been washed down to ensure cleanliness. Instruments were sterilised in boiling water in the utility room, the ‘sharps’ lifted from a bath of pure Lysol and well rinsed in sterile water.  Injections were given through glass syringes which were then washing and boiled up for re-use, likewise with needles. These were checked to make sure that had no barbed tips, or it they did they were sent for re-sharpening. The trolley for doing a blanket bath included two jugs of water, one hot and one cold, to fill the washing bowl. A bucket for the dirty water was included and towels, clean bed linen and nightwear all had their place. Only the area being washed was to be exposed, the rest was covered by a flannelette blanket so the patient did not get cold. Once the bath had been completed the patient’s mouth had to be properly cleaned and dentures removed and scrubbed. After all this, with the patient warm, dry and resting in a clean bed, the nurse took her trolley to the sluice to deal with the dirty laundry, empty the bucket, jugs and bowl and wash down the trolley ready for the next patient.

The most junior nurse’s duty was to collect the empty rubbish bins from outside the ward doors, taking them to the sluice for washing, drying out and lining with newspaper (no plastic bags in 1955 and no disposable bowls, bedpans or bottles). Metal bedpans, glass bottles and enamel bowls were washed by hand and the bedpans (once emptied) went into a large washer.

Who would now know how to test urine for sugar, blood etc? Equal quantities of urine and Fehling’s solution were boiled over a bunsen burner and the resulting colour of the liquid indicated the sugar levels, from blue to green, yellow to orange. This was the way insulin dosage was decided. It was somewhat hit and miss as the colour was not always clear, so many patients may have been under or over dosed, but they all seemed to survive. I’ve forgotten the test for blood, but to look for proteins, simply boil urine and the level of cloudiness indicated the presence of albumin. We were glad when dipsticks started to appears as their use freed the junior nurses from the messiness of the old tests.

My first spell on night duty was on one of the wards in REH. By the time we arrived at 10pm, all the patients were asleep and I had no idea who was who or what disease they suffered from. It was an education in check and double checking that the patient and the treatment matched. Patients did not wear an identity bracelet then, so in the dark it would be easy to make a mistake. Most of the patients had had a tonsillectomy and regular pulse charts were important to spot bleeding. Trying to identify the patient and take his pulse by torchlight was quite a difficult thing to achieve. If you got it wrong, the poor chap who was sleeping peacefully might be rudely awakened to have his throat examined by the houseman, whilst the right one was quietly bleeding away.

Walking through the tunnels from REH to the Nurses’ Home for lunch at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning was eerie. Mostly it was quiet, but occasionally you could hear the rumbling or a tube train on the Northern line at Warren Street.

On day duty on Ward 2/1, one of the surgical wards, patients were expected to rest after lunch. Unless otherwise employed, we juniors sat at the long refectory table to make cotton wool mops, cut a roll of gauze into squares, then fold them up to make dressings. Crepe bandages, which we had washed and dried, had to be rolled for storage. Drums of dressings for special investigations such as lumbar puncture were assembled and sent for autoclaving .It is remarkably that wound infections were very uncommon. The Surgical Unit had a book which recorded any infections the ward had dealt with and it was regarded as shameful if your ward had a mention. As we only had penicillin. streptomycin and sulphonamides to treat infections, it was just as well our aseptic care was so good. Nowadays, when I see a nurse arrive at the bedside to do a dressing with a paper packet in her hand or resting in a kidney dish, I wonder what our elegant and stern matron, Miss Downton, would make of it.

So much has changed in nursing, some for good and some questionable, but my basic training has never left me. Although I ‘retired’ in 1968, I am still proud to be ‘UCH trained’.

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