I started nursing sixty years ago this week at Royal Perth Hospital. What a milestone! It was winter, 1955. Winters were wetter then, and seemed colder.
My nursing career was an accident. I really wanted to be a writer, a journalist or a teacher of literature. My parents thought these choices odd.
‘They’re not proper jobs,’ my mother said. ‘How about nursing? Or would you like to work in an office? Those are good jobs for a girl.’
In those days nurses were ‘trained’ not educated. I’m sad I don’t have a single photo of that time.
Nursing sixty years ago
For me the apprentice system of nursing sixty years ago meant
- Leaving the comfort of my parents’ home. Sharing a room with two or three strangers in the nurses’ quarters. Sometimes the beds were on a veranda. Living in was compulsory for the whole three years of training.
- Being indentured as an apprentice. The papers were between my father and the hospital. At seventeen years, I was a minor and incidental to the agreement. I was still a minor when I finished my training and became a registered nurse. How did that work, I wonder?
- A forty-eight hour week worked over six days on a roster. We noted our requests for time off in a book. Often not granted.
- No more team sports. You could never guarantee you’d be off for a game or for training.
- Two-month-long spells of night duty – guaranteed to stuff up anyone’s social life!
- Lectures and exams after work or in the middle of sleep-time if you were on night duty.
- Freezing in a short-sleeved cotton dress (complete with apron and belt). Our necks chaffed under stiffly starched detachable collars.
- Being locked into the quarters at 10.30 every night. Special passes were ‘awarded’ occasionally to stay out until midnight.
- Miserly pay plus board (see above) and hospital food.
In six weeks in preliminary training school (PTS) we learned to make beds with mitred corners, bed-bath a dummy and inject oranges. PTS was warm and comfortable. It was remote from the reality of the wards we would soon face.
My surname was towards the bottom of the alphabet. The roster was alphabetically arranged. The position of ‘first junior’ (the lowest of the lowly) fell to the person at the bottom of the roster.
Nursing sixty years ago was task-oriented rather than patient-oriented.
For four months my jobs included cleaning the pan-room every time I went on duty.On morning shift it was my lot to scrub every bed-pan and urine bottle. (Most patients were confined to bed for most of their hospital stay.) Then I boiled the utensils in a steriliser and put them on racks. to drain and dry. The work was hot and filthy. There were no protective gloves available.
Afternoon shifts weren’t a lot better. My job as first junior was to test the wee of every patient. The wee was always ready standing in in rows in glasses of a certain shape, To this day, I can’t drink from a glass that shape!
After pan-room duties were finished, the pan room was inspected by a staff-nurse. For the rest of the shift I did the bidding of a more senior colleague.
My life passed in a blur. I had no idea what nursing meant. My feet hurt. My heart ached every day at the sight of half-a-million bedpans or mile-long rows of wee that waited for me.
Life changed after my first lot of night-duty. The nurse with whom I worked had almost completed her training. She was knowledgeable, kind and gentle with my ignorance.
She taught me that patients were whole people. That nursing was about helping these real people to get well or (occasionally) to die peacefully. She showed me how to make people comfortable in their beds. To comfort them. To care about them. That there was more to being a nurse than cleaning a pan room. I began to enjoy my work.
I often wonder where that nurse is now. I hope life has been very, very kind to her
Nursing sixty years ago was very different from today. Nurses are educated. They are respected professionals. Viva la difference!