Yes, it's time to drag out the 1976 funny-hat-blue-belt photo again (fourth year of training, finals taken, results awaited) and tag another post under The Sufferings of Student Nurse collection, and If I'd known then what I know now I think I would have been rightly terrified at the mere thought of my student nurse ward allocation to Cohen CD, Infectious and Skin Diseases at Great Ormond Street, on March 10th 1974. My last ward before heading off to secondment at the London Hospital for the SRN part of the training that combined RSCN (Registered Sick Children's Nurse) with it.
I know the exact dates because (this being me) I still have my Pink Book with all my ward experience logged and signed. It was on Cohen CD that I worked under the tutelage and eagle eye of Sister Macqueen, (the author of The Children's Nurse - The True Story of a Great Ormond Street Nurse) for the next twelve weeks. Tucked in my Pink Book I have even discovered a scrap of paper with some of the Cohen patient names and diagnoses, obviously an attempt to drill it into my head in readiness for a ward round, and reading it now I am even more retrospectively terrified at how my twenty-year old self gaily dealt with such things as tubercular, e coli and meningococcal meningitis and herpes encephalitis amongst other things, and with never a thought that somehow I might catch something. And then the young teenager with epidermolysis bullosa, a debilitating conditon where the skin blisters and falls off at the merest touch... her distress was not surprisingly manifest in tantrums and teenage angst, and the daily bath sheer, unmitigating torture for all concerned.
But imagine my delight when I heard news that Sister Macqueen, known to us then as Sue ( though never to her face of course, heavens the earth would have opened up and swallowed us) had written a book (with the help of a ghost writer) about life as a nurse at Great Ormond Street. Being a completist with regard to my shelf of books about G.O.S I ordered a copy there and then, but this being me and wanting it yesterday, I downloaded the Kindle version too.
Sue Susan Sister Macqueen (old habits etc) had actually completed her initial nurse training at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge where she first encountered the GOS nurses out on adult secondment as part of their combined adult and children's nursing course...
'... their GOSH uniforms marking them apart from everyone else...the pink nurses were renowned for their attention to detail, not only in the way they looked, but in the way they cared for their patients..'
It was all enough to convince Susan (OK, I'm over it now, I'm sixty this year after all) that she wanted to do her post-registration paediatric training at GOS and that is where she headed at the earliest opportunity. With her nerves in shreds (no...I can't imagine this, she was a formidable ward sister) Susan walked onto 1A, the ward that would put the fear of god up most of us bright young things, Cardiac.
It is an indication of the terror that Susan, though already a qualified nurse, felt out of her depth amid the noisy hubbub that was an old GOS ward. The wards in our day, now almost obsolete, were a rare mix of medical and nursing care of the highest standard to the backdrop of the laughter and shrieks of children playing and riding tricycles up and down the corridor, and with the radio singing along in the background.
Do you remember that song Lullaby of Broadway, a hit again in 1976. Wiz and I were both staff nurses on the same ward, 2DE (metabolic diseases and burns) and as soon as we heard that song on the ward radio we'd all head for the corridor for the tap dancing bit...no matter what you were holding...baby... potty... syringe.
Sister Macqueen might have had a bit of a conniption and of course that would not have been possible on Cohen where she became sister in 1972, the year that I arrived at Great Ormond Street to start my training. Cohen was all about barrier nursing... masks, gloves, gowns and hand-scrubbing a way of life, and your hands were even more sore than usual. Susan recounts many tales of life on the ward, the small details all very familiar to anyone who worked at GOS during that era...Z-beds in the waiting room...'specials' providing one-to-one nursing care...the old Engstrom ventilators...
Amongst all my own memories of Cohen ward several stand out....
The day that I was supervising a nurse more junior than I was, though she was considerably more confident, and made that very plain indeed. She was getting her first taste of caring for a baby in an incubator and we had run through what she needed to do, it was only changing a nappy and I had said I'll join you in a minute and probably nipped off to do some observations or something. Imagine my horror when I returned to find that she had lifted the lid of the incubator and put it on the floor (germs...OMG) in order to handle the baby. When I pointed out that this wasn't what we did her reply was priceless...
'Dont be ridiculous, you don't expect me to be able to do anything through those stupid holes in the side do you?'
I think I was more terrified that Sister Macqueen would come around the corner and see this debacle in progress, and I often wondered quite how long it was before Confident Student was cut down to size...she would have been, no question.
'I tried to be firm but fair with the nurses and students who worked under me...I demanded a lot from them. If my nurses worked hard, I made sure I praised them and made them feel at ease...'
Conversely, step out of line or slacken off and you would be told in no uncertain terms. No risks can be taken in the hospital environment full-stop, but on Cohen ward any short-cuts could lead to further infection for a child already compromised, or to a nurse catching a serious illness. We learned the form very swiftly indeed.
Susan Macqueen put all that experience of infection control on Cohen to good use, eventually becoming the hospital's leading expert on the subject, and responsible for ongoing excellent outcomes in the management of hospital-acquired infections in children, before also working at the Department of Health, all of which is charted in the book. In that case I now feel quite reassured by the fact that it was Sister Macqueen who examined me on the first of five practical assessments completed during our training. My Aseptic Technique under her watchful eye (2nd April 1974) must have been up to snuff because I passed and I have her signature to prove it (click on this picture, it should enlarge) and I would still use it now and did, even on the cat's stitches.
Susan describes herself as a firm but fair ward sister and interestingly, before I had even opened the book I was pondering my experience of working with her and, in my mind, had used the exact same words. She talks in some detail about that role and I found it fascinating to hear about it from the other side, ward sisters were slightly terrifying goddesses in our eyes, little did we even imagine they had a social life...or a home...or a boyfriend. Surely they slept, immaculately uniformed and poised in a cupboard on the ward before jumping out and apparating right next to you the very same second that you'd decided to cut that corner, or touch that door with your hand, or...or... And who knew about the love-hate ongoing battle of words and sparring with Dr Marshall, the Australian ward Consultant, who was also the physician for the Chelsea football team.
I have another lasting memory of Cohen too...
It was night duty and the ward desk had a line of visibility through to the vase of flowers in the front hall of the hospital. There were always white flowers in the arrangement, and one would be collected by a nurse when a child had died to be placed in the child's crossed hands when they were laid out. On one particular night I saw Wiz, my flatmate come down to that vase not once but three times, it's a salutory reminder of what we were all dealing with at the age of twenty, though thankfully with the support of each other and sisters like Susan Macqueen to guide us through it all.
A lovely book which it has given me much pleasure to read, though I am aware this may also be because the old alma mater is so close to my heart. But if you are enjoying the current run of nursing and midwifery memoirs then certainly add this one to the list.