28th April is a significant anniversary date that I treasure each year.
On the evening of Sunday 27th April 1974, at the age of 17 and about 6 weeks, I left home for the first time – as I have already said on another page of these memoires. I moved in to the Nurses’ Home at the Prince of Wales’ Orthopædic Hospital, Rhyd-Lafar, Cardiff. Cars in our family were few and far between in those days, so my Mother, with her best friends, my Auntie Mon and Uncle Ron (driver), took us to the hospital reception event.
I met Ruth Jackson (olim Robertson) there that evening, and we have stayed friends and in regular contact ever since. She even invited me to her wedding, but she says she’s never forgiven me for upstaging her with the ‘frock’ I was wearing! I was a student priest with the Franciscans in Canterbury.
There are so many happy – amazingly happy – memories I could share from those 2 years at the Prince of Wales’. Students of nursing and midwifery today will probably think the stories I tell here are from another planet, not just an earlier generation!
The female students used to wear dresses, in the then new national colour-coded uniforms used across the whole of Wales – ‘canary yellow’ for students and pupils. The male students wore a long white coat, with epaulettes in the same colour as the corresponding rank of female dresses. Only two years before we started, the students ‘back then’ had worn starched caps and aprons, with coloured belts and buckles. The new students would have to troop, en masse, to the hospital-based Sewing Room. There, the whole class would stand in a long line, and the Home Sister (that’s a ‘band 7’ in modern day parlance), or later, a non-nurse Home Warden, would use a wooden measuring stick on each one of them.
The Home Sister / Warden would put the measuring stick on the ground, and the senior seamstress would mark a point on the dress for the hem. No matter how tall, short, fat, thin or anywhere in-between all these nurses would be, their hems on the uniform dresses formed a perfectly straight line, each with the other, when the nurses stood in a row. The reason? Was it to save lives, or for good for evidence-based infection control ? Not quite that simple! It was so that they all looked neat and tidy when the Consultant did “his” ward rounds (hardly ever a female consultant in orthopædics in those days)!
Our first 6 or 8 weeks would be in the School of Nursing. Even for tasks such as making beds, we would learn first in a classroom then gradually be let out onto the wards. For example, we would go onto the wards first thing in the morning, just to make beds. Then when we learned how to give a patient a bed bath, in the School of Nursing skills classroom, we could be let out to try on real people: the patients in their beds! This first block in School was called “PTS”, Preliminary Training School.
Many of the patients would be in bed for ages! Someone having a total hip replacement would be log-rolled, to stop them getting pressure sores, with a huge foam wedge between their legs. That might mean being in bed for around 10 days post-op, I think!
I remember reading on Twitter some young medical student asking “What’s all this about ‘hashtag neck of femur’?”
Think about it: # neck of femur!
I was the only male in a class of 20. We were all just 17 years old. I used to sit at the back. The Senior Nursing Officer of Education was a tyrant, but we loved and truly respected her. She was Miss Elizabeth Jones – aka Auntie Betty! She would strike terror in us, but blimey did she teach us respect and how to be amazing nurses. To say Miss Jones was “old school” was an understatement. She had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army and had a Territorial Distinction medal (TD).
Now, if any young people are reading this, the historical era called “BC” means “Before Computers”! In those days, we used to have a black board at the front of the classroom that people wrote on with this stuff called “chalk”, hence the saying “Chalk and Talk” for teachers. To erase the chalk writing or drawing, there would be a blackboard rubber. (I don’t know why it was called that: it was made of solid wood and a block of furry felt). Anyway, Miss Jones was brilliant at A&P, anatomy and physiology, but her teaching style was something to behold! She would come into the class and say:
“Right Nurses, today we will study something you haven’t done before, so I don’t expect too much from you. Today we are going to study the femur. Who knows where the femur is?”
Hands would go up, wanting to win ‘brownie points’ off Auntie Betty! But then as soon as she would ask about the 7 different types of fractures; or ‘which comes first: osteoclasts or osteoblasts’? Or ‘what’s the origin and insertion points of the muscles surrounding the femur?’: she would draw a blank. Each wrong or non-answer would get more and more rage from her, until she would explode, throw the wooden rubber down the classroom at us, tell us all how stupid we all were and that we should come to collect her from her office once we had studied the work and knew it all sufficiently enough to answer her correctly!
Don’t know why, but it was always me that had to go and knock on her office door and tell her we were ready!
“Who the hell do you think you are, man!”
One time, she was in her kitchen next to her office, boiling a kettle. I tried to sneak by without her noticing me. I had been at the hospital about 12 months and had grown a beard. She glanced over her shoulder and shouted in the most excellent Sargent-Majoresque voice: “Good God man! What’s that on your face? Who do you think you are – Jesus Christ? Get it off!!! We employed you without a beard: WE will decide if you can have one!”
Until I was 18, I had never seen anyone die or even seen a dead body. On my first ward experience after coming out of PTS we had a patient dying, which was realy rare in an orthopædic hospital. A gang of us went out to the local pub (about 3 miles away). When we got back and were walking down the corridor to our rooms, I was rather drunk and became really melancholic! I was upset and saying out loud, “That poor man is dying, and here I am getting drunk! It’s not right … he’s dying … and we’re out enjoying ourselves”. Auntie Betty lived in the Nurses’ Home. Her suite of rooms was at the far end of the long corridor, not far from where we male students lived. Although I was upset, the females I was with (qualified State Enrolled Nurses) were pissed and happy! We all made such a noise we woke up Auntie Betty. She was almost goose-stepping up the corridor in her dressing gown, with rollers in her hair and a net over them. The girls scarpered and left me to face the wrath. “What the hell is all this noise!? Have you no respect for other people?! See me at 9am on Monday!”
I was bricking it! On Monday morning, she asked me what was going on, then, having seen how upset I had been about that poor patient dying, her profound nursing empathy came to the fore – not! She said “If you are going to get THAT upset every time someone is going to die, for God sake leave NOW, man, or you’ll be a wreck!”
Let me tell you two more short stories before the punch line!
The ex-US Army hospital, the Prince of Wales’ Rhyd-Lafar, used to have separate dining rooms. There was one for orthopædic surgeons, medical students, Sisters and other senior nurses, then the other one was for all nurses under the rank of Sister including students, porters, cleaners, and all other staff.
Even in ‘our’ dining room there was a strict hierarchy for seating places at table. A student could only ever sit on a table with students of their same year or class, or those below, but never with students above or qualified nurses: they were gods! Then half way through my time at Rhyd-Lafar, things changed. A sort of democracy crept in and the dining rooms were amalgamated.
We male students had long white coats. Miss Jones made sure we knew how to roll up our sleeves, above the elbow, in pristine box-style cuffs. They had to be up, like this, whenever we were on a ward. Even if we needed to pop to the next ward, to borrow something, we would have to roll our cuffs down, to go in to the corridor, then open the big ward entry door, close it quietly behind us, and roll our sleeves up before passing Sister’s office!
One day, I walked in to the dining room, with my (compulsory) three course lunch on a tray, as I looked across the room for a suitable table. There was Auntie Betty sitting right across the dining room, at the furthest end from me. Her glare could have pierced right through me. Then she smacked her upper arm twice, and motioned rolling her hand down her forearm to her finger tips. My sleeves were up! I had to put my tray on the nearest table and roll down my sleeves before I could proceed to find a seat. I still roll my sleeves like that to this day!
Five pounds was a huge amount of money
Just before I left the hospital, Auntie Betty was moving out, to her own flat in Barry. A Saturday morning, I had records playing (loud-ish, I guess) as I was doing something in my room, when all of a sudden someone kicked hell out of my door! I thought it was going to crash in on me. I opened it to find Auntie Bettie standing there. “What the hell is all this noise, man! Turn it off and come and help me move out this instant!” She was great fun to be with that day, and she gave me £5 for my troubles! That’s equivalent to £36 / €42 in 2017. Considering our monthly salary was only £49.50, (that’s about £1.60 a day) then a fiver was a lot of money.
The punch line
Imagine us 17 year olds, 20 of us: 19 females, one male (me) sitting in the back of the class in PTS. We were in orderly rows. Auntie Betty had a sports car. As the hospital was in a field, in the middle of nowhere, if we students wanted to go to Llandaff (3 miles away) or Cardiff centre (5 miles), then we would wait for ages on the occasional country bus out on the main road. Auntie Betty would whiz by in her sports car without even a glance over – but she saw us, alright! She would come in to class the next morning, a short and rather ‘buxom’ person. She would have her hands, with thumbs crossed in military fashion, behind her back. She would parade up and down the aisles of us students; we were cringing, hoping it wasn’t us she was going to talk about and shame. She would say …
I drove past the bus stop yesterday evening. Do you know what I saw?
A rhetorical question, of course: to reply would have been insubordination!
I saw hussies! Prostitutes!
(Keeps on walking down the aisle / more students cringing!)
They were wearing skirts so short I could see their breakfast! They had make-up on thick as trollops! …
Then she would really let rip! Her voice would get louder, as she passed the ‘culprits’ whom she saw on the bus stop, until her voice was truly booming by the time she got to the back of the class, to me. Then she would say …
There’s no place in this hospital or School of Nursing for trollops! Or hussies! Or harlots! (then passing me) Or poufters!!! So if there are any of you harlots, sluts or POUFTERS here now: LEAVE! Get out of nursing!”
Forty three years later, happy to say, this “pouf” is still celebrating being a nurse and even followed Auntie Betty into education!