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Whoever gave advice on the TV program “Call the Midwife” got a lot of it right. In fact the realities of nursing—especially the camaraderie of “living in” with colleagues and the crazy contrast between callow youth and the extraordinary realities of humans in need ring very true, at least in terms of my experience of nurse training in the 70’s.
The moments of real authenticity make up for the twee bits which (seemingly) have to be a part of any such TV show – after all this is entertainment, not a documentary. (Though watching last nights episode with Dr Patrick and wife singing to each other while she was in labour made me laugh out loud—excruciatingly naff).
I also have no idea about saintly singing nuns and biscuit-seeking senile ones at that as Prince Henry’s Nurses Home bore little resemblance to Nonartis House; in fact when I see Trixie and co swigging down grasshopper cocktails and the like with their hair in rollers I am quite amazed as at our Nurses Home booze was banned.
Our “Home Sister” (large and toad-like in a huge veil) sat stationed at the entry and exit door peering suspiciously at any male who came to call for nurse “so and so”. She reigned like a human contraceptive ensuring immediate detumesence of any male with even hypothetical let alone actual – growing interest in his date for the night.
Her hormone zapping rays worked a treat – at least for the three minute walk out to the large front gate and onto the road at the back of the actual hospital where beaus parked, picking up and dropping off their girlfriends.
The whole Nurses Home was surrounded by wire cyclone-type fencing. Gates were snapped shut at 10 pm (for new trainees). You could ring the bell for later return where once again you had to file past sister to get to the lift or staircase and go to your room.
You felt the penetrating stare upon you and hoped that any vestige of the evenings social pleasures had evaporated completely and that you looked as sexless as a tree stump about to climb into your little bark bed until in a few hours time you’d awake to don the starch and cape of yet another day.
Most nurses began their training at around age 18 then. I was in the October 1970 school, a small group of only 11. Of these only 7 graduated and of this dwindling number some threatened to leave after awful shifts, mainly due to emotional exhaustion or bullying by seniors in the hospital system (…. usually both).
It was never the patients or the awful diseases we saw, or the suffering of brave folk and the difficult behaviours of the mentally unwell – nor was it the blisters on feet, the lack of sleep, the heavy and exhausting work and the stench of decaying humanity – no we took all of this in our stride. It was the unkindness of others who should have been our mentors and nurturers but were more frequently our tormentors; Blank to the memory of their own teenage years – many of them with an army background – the impossible demands and the humiliating treatment they metered out would now warrant dismissal but in those days and to this class of “Senior Sister” such treatment was regarded as necessary to give young women the backbone and discipline to meet the challenges of the Profession (I say women because I never saw one male trainee in my years at Prince Henry’s – I am sure this was soon to change).
Of course there were some lovely and kind staff and very happy wards where great team work was practiced but I would be untruthful if I did not attest to a rigidly hierarchical system which led to a “make or break” culture – one which oversaw the loss of many young women who would have made excellent nurses had they not been damaged by that one person or that one incident which proved the proverbal hair that broke the camel’s back.
That such experiences moulded one both personally and professionally is undeniable. The encapsulated environment, the friendships formed in adversity, the thrill of a good shift and the feeling of being truly helpful and competent is an amalgam of such heavy contrasts – that certainly in my life – has never been equalled.
Evolving from teenager to young adult with all the biological, psychological and social maturation still occurring, we were thrust into situations that even now I would find difficult to manage.
Such an important era – not only within nursing – but the whole health care sector, should be reflected upon and written about. The concept of apprenticeship in providing human care has important elements in the development of the “professional” within the clinician; It still does. All of us knew so little about the human condition when we set out. We had to listen, learn, observe, question and above all, be taught how to channel combined respect and knowledge towards the welfare of our patients. This is the oft quoted blend of ‘Art and Science’ in human care.
Whilst “personality” is innate (our character, introversion or extroversion, resilience or dependence ….) there are still behavioural norms novices can pick up from others and good role modelling is essential here. I was lucky to have some marvellous mentors along the way – often senior trainee nurses who seemed able to work like Trojans but breathed compassion and joy in service. (There were many tears and moments of shame as I received my share of discipline but I am a determined creature ……. had to be).
So much of the old ‘apprenticeship’ training in nursing which died out in the 90’s when University education took over, was based upon the quality of interpersonal experiences with seniors – and indeed the whole system – Academic learning was still rigorous in those days but almost divorced from the reality of the lived experience of the patient. We learnt about systems, dysfunction of systems and remedies both surgical and medical for these. On the wards we were swamped with tasks, absorbing survival techniques along the way. Humour was probably our greatest ally – a huge antidote to the anxieties we faced – and felt.
Patients – thank God – often revelled in the humour too. A shared joke and especially the camaraderie patients developed with each other, was a buttress against huge stress; No doubt still is.
But the era of ultra-militarised training though long dead has occasional echoes in older staff who retain traditions of closed thinking and some judgementalism (…. Hell I hope I’m not one of them ….). For some in those days adopting the behavioural norm meant survival – adapting to maladaption was somehow logical, but awful. This is by no means commonly encountered but even one among many is lamentable and a lack of kindness surely goes against all that Nursing should hold dear.
It’s not just Nursing – as we all read last year, doctors face huge hurdles in entrenched cultures – especially if they aspire to a career in surgery. It appears that ’ego and entitlement’ of seniors with immense power over others can have lamentable consequences, and more power to those who have called it out.
I, like so many trained nurses (including Carolyn, Cathy and Candice at Fairway) went on to further study at University. Eight years for Bachelor and Master’s studies off campus through Monash. I revelled in the space to think and reflect upon Nursing from an academic perspective. Ethical and Legal Dilemmas, Public Policy and Healthcare, Organisational Psychology, Nursing Theory, Therapeutic Communication and so many other subjects—affecting our practice.
But in almost every area my mind would go back to those days of intense clinical and emotional experience at Prince Henry’s. Just on fifty years later I can remember patients full names and faces; Nights and days full of learning and challenge which I used in many essays and reflections. University taught me to think with my brain but Prince Henry’s gave knowledge through hands and heart. I cannot say which is the most important as the one informs the other equally.
One thing I can say though is that it’s been a hell of a ride – a pure delight and privilege to work with amazing colleagues and care for wonderful folk. I watch Carolyn, an inspirational Nurse Leader and our staff beavering away to give of their best to one and all and feel so proud of them.
Let’s hope old Flo Nightingale up in Heaven is holding her lamp aloft and nodding along with me!
Blessings to all