Having trained in paediatric nursing and at a hospital where the motto was Children First and Always, the title of this book was always going to resonate deeply with me.
Then the cover...and this cover has entranced me throughout, though I suspect its traditional image is more about ensuring that Always the Children - A Nurse's Story of Home and War by Anne Watts take its rightful place amongst the plethora of nursing memoirs hitting the shelves at the moment.
The cover perhaps also slightly misleading when you delve into the content because Anne Watts is no traditional nurse following the path of starch and hospital hierarchy, charting instead a very different route for herself and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading about her diverse and fascinating career.
Anne's childhood blighted by a terrible tragedy and ensuing sadness and it was much against her father's wishes that she entered nurse training in October 1958, and for some reason the month is always important in the old nurse training calendar. I have always been part of the Oct 72 set at Gt Ormond Street, Anne doubtless the Oct 58 set at Manchester Royal Infirmary. Nurse training hadn't changed that much twixt her day and mine so I identified with many of Anne's experiences in the School of Nursing and on the wards.
In 1967, and with some experience under her belt, Anne applies and is selected to work for the Save the Children Fund and posted to Qui Nhon in South Vietnam, 360k north of Saigon and a war zone comparable with the very worst the world could offer.
I was immediately interested because the family of one of my student nurse flatmates back in the early 1970s had adopted Vietnamese twin girls, deserted by their mother in a Saigon orphanage in 1969. Setting aside any ethical issues and controversy about the principles of adoption outside a home country, these two little girls (who are now in their forties) were rescued from certain death and raised in a family that loved them dearly and gave them a fantastic start in life. I knew them as very bouncy four year olds who were the delight of the little Yorkshire village they grew up in and yet somehow Vietnamese to their core.
As I read Always the Children I realised I could actually squeak it into this month's Endsleigh Salon theme of Plague and Pestilence. I'd been scouring the shelves for a good disease to catch my attention...Journal of a Plague Year or the History of Polio/ Cholera and nothing seemed to be working its contagion on me; but what bigger source of plague and pestilence if not the scourge, the stupidity and the futility of war and its associated viral spin-offs, genocide, massacre, displacement and the torture of innocent victims to name but a few.
On her travels Anne certainly meets plenty of disease...Malaria, Bubonic Plague (nearly) Hansen's Disease (formerly known as Leprosy) and in the latter years AIDS, as well as the devastating injuries to be expected in the war zones in which she works. After Vietnam, Cambodia under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and then Lebanon during the Israeli occupation.
There are some incredible photos too, several very moving and one in particular which relates to some school desks made for local Vietnamese children by the US Navy 'SeaBees'.
There's a little girl seated at one, a look of complete concentration on her face as she does a puzzle...you can see the words 'all interlocking' on the box on the desk and it's a beautiful little desk, no botch cowboy job this, and I looked at this little girl's face for ages until eventually I scanned the picture as a whole and my eyes caught the space beneath the desk where two little legs should have been dangling, and they were not.
But as I pondered the plague and pestilence theme in relation to Always the Children, so much more emerged too and often in the most surprising places.
A stint in between overseas placements spent working in an elderly care home in Wandsworth revealed shockingly low levels of care.
For all its wealth Saudi Arabian attitudes to women and their oppression seemed as pestilential and insidious as the worst outbreaks of any disease likely to be found in a war zone. As did the brutality of female circumcision in the Sudan, the results of which Anne witnessed, and over which I most definitely wanted to cry.
It seems like lazy recourse to a series of corny cliches on my part to say that Anne's indomitable spirit shines through the most appalling experiences of man's inhumanity to man, but they do, and all alongside her darker moments of doubt and fear mixed with anger, compassion and grief at what she witnesses. But there's black humour too, always in evidence in most nursing environments and essential when you've been there. So expect some refreshingly light-hearted moments, much laughter, a wonderful encounter with Bob Hope and a few high-risk mischievous adventures too.
And yes, Anne might have thrown up on the floor with fear but I was almost incontinent as she described the footsteps crashing and circling the hut in the middle of the night suspecting it to be...when actually it was... who'd have thought it!
Faced with overwhelming distress and sadness Anne's pragmatism also comes to the fore.
In my own experience you're completely scuppered without this capability in most nursing situations; there may be things happening around you that you detest with a passion, yet you cannot change them and to try, or to lose sleep over it all, is to waste precious emotional energy needed elsewhere and thus risk becoming increasingly ineffective. It's the quick road to burn out. Other things that perhaps you can change a little, and that little may actually become a lot in the bigger scheme and it's that old wisdom adage about knowing the difference.
Always the Children a truly worthy addition to those nursing memoirs currently so popular, Nurse on Call by Edith Cotterill ... Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth and who knows perhaps one day dovegreyreader's as you all keep urging me to do, though doubtless I'll miss the moment and find the publishing world is sated with them by the time I do. A few of mine own memories are on here, but the big ones, the majority are stored up for a future date (perhaps) because I think there is a right time in a nursing life to share them and mine are still too recent, the people far too local and far too alive and we still live here. I see most of them at the checkout in Morrison's for starters and no matter how deeply I buried the details, some of those really hair-raising moments out in the community are so one-off that everyone would recognise themselves. I'd be in terrible trouble with the NMC over confidentiality and probably be struck off or de-aproned or whatever is done to nurses these days.
If I'm still compus heapus at 70 I'll have another think about it.
Meanwhile I'm delighted for Anne Watts, she has a warm and sensitive voice and has found exactly the right moment for her book, and thank goodness her sister Joan motivated her to write it.