Linda Wilson - Medicine

My name is Linda Wilson nee Gracey and I was brought up in Northern Ireland but born in Glasgow. I have travelled all over Europe and as far as the Lebanon. At the age of 18 I went to Switzerland as an au pair. Originally I wanted to teach ecology but I ended up on the wards nursing.

I loved nursing, especially nursing the elderly. I understand that many nurses are people born under the sign of Taurus, as I was. We are supposed to be caring and motherly. My first hospital was the Ulster Hospital in Belfast which is in the suburbs unlike the Victoria Hospital which is in the centre of the town. I was an auxiliary nurse.

I started my nursing training proper on the 12th of January 1976 in the city of London at the Westminster Hospital. I remember it very well. I was one of an intake of ninety. The hospital was in the centre of London very near the Houses of Parliament. Now it has been turned into luxury flats; the halls of residence are luxury flats and even the Children`s Hospital is now luxury flats. The area has changed so much. I would never have believed that people would pay a fortune to live there. We had a roof terrace where we used to take tea in summer complete with cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

My salary was 1400 per annum which was a King`s ransom to me. We wore a uniform which was checked to see that the skirt came below the knee; we wore a linen starched apron with cross-over straps. I really felt and looked like a nurse. When we walked from the nurses` home to the training school we wore these cloaks and felt very smart. The school was in Vincent Square where the Westminster Boys School had a cricket pitch.

The intake was divided into two groups and we really did not get to know the other group. I know that I lived in constant fear of being discontinued. I was anxious to get good reports and to make the grade with my written work. After nine months we took the preliminary exam and about two thirds of us failed. I was absolutely panic-struck. However so many had failed there must have been something wrong with the exam paper. Perhaps we were asked about something we had not been taught. Anyway, they gave us another chance.

A lot of famous people came to the hospital. For instance Wilfred Pickles came in when he died. It was nothing to do with me, I assure you. At one time it was the hospital the MPs went into (before they all went private). We had some very nice patients. At one time, David Ennals MP came in. He was so charming, a true gentleman. He had to come in to have pieces of shrapnel removed. People who were well-known made no fuss, but people who thought they were somebody and weren`t - could behave badly. Donald Sinden, the actor, came into Moorfields at one time when I was there, and when invited to come straight in he refused and took his place in the queue. An elderly lady nearby was overcome when she saw him. `Is that Donald Sinden?` she kept saying in a loud whisper. I said, ` Go and ask him`, so she did. `Yes, my dear, I am Donald Sinden`, he replied. She was quite overcome. It was different with some of the theatrical people. One star with a tiny bit of a foreign body in her eye gave a performance like a dying swan. `Blooming Nora!` I said. `What is she doing?`

I have been a nurse for 27 years, 28 this year. One of the differences I have noticed is that in those days a great deal of deference was showed to the consultants. Our sister would offer tea on a tray with a doilly in her office, with biscuits and the tea in china cups. She would run round after him. One consultant did not like to see the students around so we had to hide in the linen cupboard when he came. If a patient wanted a bedpan whilst he was there, hard luck. And he was there about an hour usually. I used to think,`What`s all this about?` Now the sisters have better things to do. There is still respect but the relationship is more professional.

In my day the system was organised so that first year students did basic tasks over and over again such as taking temperatures or changing dressings. This way we became proficient at them and we got to know nearly all of the patients. Later the practise came in where a patient was allocated to a nurse. This meant that you only got to know a few of the patients and if you got a difficult patient you were stuck with him. There was nobody to share that with you. One very demanding patient once knocked a newspaper to the floor on purpose so that she could ring the bell for me to come and pick it up. Politely but firmly she was told that I was not there for that kind of thing, it was just not on.

We were given such responsibilities, it was scary really. On my very first night on the wards, it was the cancer ward and no-one was actually in charge. There was me aged twenty and new, the staff nurse was on probation having done something wrong involving drugs, the enrolled nurse worked between two wards and there were two auxiliary nurses. And that night we had six deaths! One was of a young man who had cancer of the testes. He was very religious and when he went down for tests he took his bible with him under the pillow. The doctors, quite rightly in my opinion, told him the truth about his condition. He was incredibly brave in the face of death. I knew him from my day duty and when he was dying he said `Tell my mother I was not scared`. His parents were unable to get there in time. This sort of thing certainly challenged my faith quite a lot. I thought how can a loving God allow such things? I learned not to say why has this happened.

Another young man had cancer which was eating away his face, and he was so handsome. He kept saying, `What shall I look like?` His poor wife! and they had a tiny baby. Another good-looking young lad had three tumours in the brain and he asked, ` Shall I go mad?`

I saw some very sad things. That first night I came home past crying but saying ` I can`t do this. It is too much`. I couldn`t sleep, you couldn`t put it away from you. There was no help given really. The attitude was if you can`t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Now much more can be done for the patients and also for the students where they can get help to cope with this. They are not expected to do the things we had to do. Part of it was that some people would have made very good nurses but they were just not supported. We were thrown in at the deep end if you had a good staff nurse looking after you, it helped a lot. We had students on the ward and the staff did not warn them that the body can exhale as you roll it to lay it out. If the students did not know about this, it frightened them. I have come across people who thought it was quite amusing to do this to the students. What gets into people? I have had students who were absolutely terrified when it happened, convinced that the patient was still alive.

Handsson work is very important contrary to what some students think. You may get one who will say, `Oh, I`ll never do that again when I qualify`, but I used to tell them that you learn something more every time you do it. You have the chance to spot things that may have been missed or has just arisen especially regarding giving baths.

The treatments are different now. They can be so intrusive and also a bit frantic. I am not always convinced that this is the best thing. When I was a student, people died in hospital and it was accepted. I cannot remember as a student all the rushing about and jumping on people`s chest as they do now. We were able to be there and it was much calmer. Also the patients convelesced for a certain amount of time they were in hospital. So you had people who had had their operation and were staying for a while. People who were well enough to help did things for us on the wards like taking round drinks. You would never dream of letting a patient push a tea-trolley now. Health and safety would eat you.

Aggy was one of our domestics and in those days it was thought a good idea to put salt in the bath to help patients`s wounds heal. Unfortunately we would run out of salt sometimes, and we would go and raid Aggy`s cupboard, but she got wise to this and she put a skull and crossbones on her cupboard with a warning to students nurses as to what would happen to them if they dared to take her salt. She was a battle-axe in her way, but if she saw a patient struggling to reach a spoon she would go over and help them. If she saw a patient struggling with eating the dinner she would go over and feed them. She was very kind with a stern exterior. But it was her ward and her nurses. That ward shone. It was not just clean, it shone. Matron would have checked it of course as she did with all the wards, but Aggie`s ward was always perfect.

I started nursing after the era when we were expected to pack drums of sterile supplies when we were on night duty and things were quiet. We had a Sterile Dressing Department instead and things came in packets. I might say that when we were on night duty we learnt to be very wary of someone who had been eating broad beans, rhubarb or apricots. Oh dear you`d think. And it could be a difficult night due to the release of wind.

We used to do hot spoon bathing. We used to put pads on a spoon and wrap bandages round it and soak it in boiling water and then hold it near the patient`s eye to draw out any stye or other infection. And for catarrhal problems, we`d use a ceramic inhaler wrapped in a towel in a bowl on the patient`s bedside table, with stuff like Friar`s Balsam in it. The patient would lean over and breath in the fumes using a glass mouthpiece, in at the mouth and out by nose. You`d think that it is a wonder we didn`t scald them all but we didn`t. Actually it worked very well, but it is consigned to the museums now. These days we are absolutely frantic about so many things .

When I was a student, Florence Nightingale was considered very old hat. She was out. It didn`t help that St Thomas`s, just across the river from us, was where she had set up her school and there was such rivalry between them and us. We used to have a raft race every year and both sides used to try to fix the race. Also one year somebody went and stole the bust of Florence Nightingale and ran across the bridge with it to Westminster. It was ransomed. We used to work hard and play hard. Although it was very disciplined, people did have a sense of humour. We would send a student nurse to CSSE for a `long wait` so they would be told to stand outside the door or they would be sent down to the stores for a box of mixed artificial eyes, a bag of flatus ( wind), a fallopian tube etc. I tried to keep a straight face. I have to be honest that I was a bit sorry for them and I used to put a little note in the bag to the staff nurse who had sent them saying `you mean thing`, and I`d give them something to take back with them because there`s nothing worse than to realise you`d been made a fool of. I went down to the stores one day because sister wanted a hammer. Now, you wouldn`t be allowed to knock a nail in the wall, you`d have to contact the building department. They asked what I wanted a hammer for, and I answered that the babies wouldn`t sleep. One fellow came back to the ward with me to check what was going on.

One of my student cronies on April Fool`s Day went down into the kitchen and rang the ward to say that she was very sorry to have to tell them but there had been a partial power failure and they were unable to cook as usual. So instead of the dinners on the trolley, they would get eggs and would Sister please check how many patients wanted their eggs boiled, how many wanted them fried, how many for coddled and how many for scrambled. Also would she organise the spreading of bread and butter? When she got back to the ward, sister had gone round the patients and taken their orders, and there was frantic buttering of bread going on. Of course she had to own up and luckily sister didn`t throw an absolute wobbly. She was quite relieved actually that she didn`t have to think about all those eggs.

Nowadays if you played some of the japes we got up to you would be in trouble. You would get a warning about your behaviour. The view would be, what are you doing that for when you should be attending to patients` care? You might even lose your job.

The wards are not run by ward sisters any more, they are run by ward managers. We went through a period when they were managers and not nurses, but we have gone back now to them being nurses. But they are torn between a rock and a hard place because they have so much to do running the ward, they do not have time to do much hands-on care. Often that`s why they became a sister because they were good at hands-on care. So what has happened is that a good nurse has been removed from what she was actually trained to do and what she was very good at. Then she ends up having to do management which could be something she doesn`t want to do and is not particularly good at, but she has to do it because that`s the way to get promotion.

People often say how much they miss the old uniforms. The nurses did look so smart and efficient with their neat caps and belt and starched apron and their capes. I suppose they could try bringing it back. They`ve brought back the matron but not as matrons used to be. She used to be a clinical nurse who used to go round and check that everything was right. Now we have matrons for surgery, matrons for medecine. Then, she was the matron for the whole hospital. She was a administrator but also she would check for cleanliness. Matrons were very powerful people. On their say so you could be out. Who has that power now? You can have someone who is really not functioning but it is a job to get them moved. They have to be given so many warnings and it can go on for quite a long period of time. Even if they kill someone it is still not easy to do something about them. You get rotten apples in every profession. Some care but others want to have power over people and come in for the wrong reasons, Some go into mental health because, basically, they need therapy themselves. They may have needs that can be met by being in that kind of environment. It is a heavy responsibility to admit people onto a training course. You have to try to understand what sort of person is applying. It is a very responsible job.

The training course is three years as it was before. But now we have a common foundation programme. Before, we had general training, mental health training. learning and child training, all separate so you would never have got to know the other students. Now they work together for eighteen months previously and now 12 months. The first year they are all together in the school and then in the branch where they do part of it together. That`s what we call shared learning because there are certain skills common to all branches, such as management skills, research skills and ethical reasoning skills. The language is different. The students come in talking naturally and then suddenly they pick up this nursey-speak and go round talking about IVs and NGs which they think is so impressive.

We still get some in who think they are going to marry doctors, and actually some do. When a doctor is attracted to one student he is often attracted to a great many students. Some of them have the morals of alley cats to put it mildly and so have some of the students. But at the end of the day I keep saying that for all this push towards degree courses, what we actually want is someone who will be there when somebody is in distress and go with them on that journey, somebody who is not frightened to clean them up, somebody prepared to touch them and not fall back. The idea is that in order to deliver the sort of nursing care that we want to deliver for the twenty-first century, we need this theoretical underpinning so that they understand the theory behind what they are doing.

I sometimes think you can go too far with the theory. The actual hands-on care is as important if not more important. When washing a patient once a student said, `I`ve done that five times, I don`t need to do it any more`. I said that every time is different. An area may be a bit red or swollen, a mother might tell you how anxious she is. I always thought that the time spent on a bed-bath is a privileged time because you have that little bit of time to talk to them to hear if they have had a bad day or even a brilliant one. I went into hospital when I was in London and a second year nurse came and sat on the bed and held my hand and said, I know you are in pain, is there anything I an do to help? She had a caring demeanor and I felt so safe. When she found out who I was, a nursing tutor, she kept away from me, she had thought I was just Joe Public. I wrote to her and told her how much it meant to me to have someone spend time with me and show me such kind care when I was in such a state.

When I was a student the training was more general. Now it is recognised that people have gifts which can take them into various areas of medecine and we try to utilise those talents to everybody`s benefit. I was with a nurse specialist in tissue viability looking at what makes the skin break down. He treats anything from burns to pressure sores, and ulcers on the legs. He can suggest the best way of treating these things and will go and measure, take pictures and prescribe what should be done, and then check what is actually working. He covers Louth, Lincoln, Boston and Grantham.

I came here in 1987. I was there at Grantham Hospital during the Beverley Allitt case. It was awful. You couldn`t believe it could happen. People asked if she seemed different when she was a student, but she didnt. She seemed perfectly ordinary except that she had lots of different illnesses. It was frightening really, that it could happen.

The very first inquest in the U.K. was held at Grantham Hospital in 1842 The lady`s name was Anne Parkinson and she was a hairdresser. She had surgery on her broken leg when ether was used. Sadly she never rallied, it was reported. At the inquest questions were asked about the use of ether. If it had been established that the ether had killed her there would never have been any general anaesthetics. It turned out she had a heart problem not known about.

People now think that having an operation is simple. They don`t realise that anaesthetics are dangerous things. It should never be under estimated that having surgery of any description is dangerous. The general public are far too blase about it. They think that having an operation is simple. Then if anything does go wrong, they are shocked. Some of the things that happened with dentists were just negligence in not having the right equipment, and not knowing what to do.

Now I am a health lecturer and I am affiliated to the University of Nottingham but I still divide my work between Grantham Hospital and the Pilgrim Hospital at Boston, and Lincoln and Nottingham Queen`s a little bit, and occasionally at Mansfield. I suppose I have come full circle since I wanted to be a teacher when I was younger. I came into nursing and ended up a teacher.

In this area we get the same kind of girls as we always did . One of the things that worries me is that they are trying to make nursing a degree course. So often students that come in are nervous, particularly about studying. They would never have come in if they thought they had to tackle a degree course. They come in because it is a diploma and when they get on well with that, they think oh I can do this and then they go on and get a degree in the end. If they had had to take a degree course at the beginning, they`d have gone oh I can`t do that. Perhaps they did not do so well at school, they lose their confidence. It takes quite a lot to build that up again.

All this drive for academic qualifications is coming from the nursing hierarchy because we are falling into line with the States and with Australia where it is all degree courses now. They want to raise the status of nurses which needs to be done. Physios for instance are seen to be of higher status because they have a degree. I go to job fairs, and to try to sell nursing to students from KGGS for instance is much more difficult. One young man from King`s was sent along because he was not considered good enough to be a doctor! I think that nursing is most demanding in skill and knowledge. Sometimes a young doctor is carried by the nursing staff and saved from making many a mistake by a well-qualified nursing staff.

We do predominantly recruit people from Lincolnshire including quite a few men who have come out of the Forces. We have our oldest student ever in now, a male aged 59, just started. He has recovered from cancer and the nursing obviously attracted him to have a try himself. He is a retired pilot and is doing very well.. There used to be a cut-off point at 45. That meant we used to miss out at some very good people.

The pay is much better now for the clinical nurses who used to be paid less than the teaching side. Now the balance has been reversed. I got 1400 which in actually terms is more than now. But we used to work long hours and unsocial hours. I was in the nurse`s home but there is no nurses` home now in Grantham, although there is still one at Boston. There is no sick bay for the nurses either. If you were sick when I was training, you went into the nurse`s sick bay and were well looked after. Now they have to be cared for at home or admitted into one of the hospital wards. We had one student who fell ill when we still had the home but no sick bay, and there was no-one else in her flat. The doctors were quite prepared for her to stay up there on her own. I objected strongly. It was dangerous for her to be alone. She was running a high temperature. So she was admitted into a general ward.

Many are married and have their own home. When I was a student we were all unmarried and female and about 19. Now half of them are over 30 and many are men. In September we have more school leavers and the more mature students come in during the March intake. The mixed wards are out now but sometimes it still happens depending on the call for beds. We didn`t have that pressure for beds when I was a student. Now there is such a quick turn round with patients going home much earlier, you hardly get to know them. We were very busy and it was heavy work but there was not the heavy dependency as now. Occasionally wards have to take patients with other specialities because there is no room on the ward that deals with their illnesses. So it happens that they end up as what we call out-lyers on other wards where the staff hasn`t the expertise to look after them as they should. For instance some medical patients have to go onto surgical wards where their well-being is attended to in the basics, but everybody can`t stay abreast of everything. Knowledge is changing at such a rate. Constantly new techniques are coming out, new ideas, new equipment and new dressings. Trying to keep up to date with it all, you can only do it for a small area, not for everything the way we used to. Things did not change as quickly then. It can be quite scary sometimes.

I took my Master`s degree at Keele University in Living Wills and the aspects and ethics of death. I have just been appointed as an external examiner at Keele so I shall be going back to work on the pre-registration nursing programme. I am in Google as a death expert but it has my phone number on so that media people can call for advice but I have had three people phone me at work wanting me to give them advice on how to euthanatise a relative. I explain that I advise people on getting help on how to cope such as that given by the Macmillan Nurses. I was on a radio programme once and I argued for people having the right to end their own lives if they so wished. Few would do it when the moment came, but when they are ill and wondering if they will be in terrible pain they want the option but it is different when it actually comes to doing it. One chap rang up and said he had helped his mother to die and the police arrested him!

Would I do it again? Yes, if I were back in 1976, but if I were making the decision now I would be a speech therapist. I didn`t know what these people did when I was young, but the 1-to-1 work appeals and the way they can really make a difference to other peoples` lives.