Working at Bevendean Hospital
I worked as an Auxiliary nurse at Bevendean Hospital between 1971 and 1973 when I was also studying for my O Levels (I got 3) and A Levels (I got 3). At the time I was living in “digs” in Riley Road, which is near the bottom of Combe Road so not far to walk to work.
The only people I can remember by name are Sister McCormack, an archetypal frightening sister rather in the mould of Hattie Jacques in Carry on Nurse, and Staff Nurse Colin Blackwood, a jovial middle aged man who taught me a lot, not just about nursing but about life. I imagine both are long since shuffled.
In those days unqualified nurses were allowed to do things that would be unacceptable today. For example, I gave injections in the upper left quadrant of patients’ posteriors. Also, one man had a lung infection (I was on a T.B. ward which was still quite a common disease in the early 1970s) that was being drained by a tube. He went into a coma and I assisted in the removal of the tube while telling him it would all be over soon. I went back to see him a couple of hours later and his pained expression had changed to one of a peaceful calm. On my next visit he was dead and I was assigned to lay him out. (I was quite good at this final medically invasive procedure and was sent from ward to ward, and even to Brighton Hospital on one occasion, for this purpose as, unlike most nurses, I had no emotional or psychological problem with this.)
On another occasion one man was sent from Bevendean to a London hospital to be “cured”. A few weeks later he returned uncured in a very depressed state. After a staff meeting it was decided to administer Helstus C, which is essentially heroin in a suspension. It relieves pain and in large quantities kills within a few days. As we started the patient on this course of medication he was fully aware of what was going on and thanked us profusely, and again on every subsequent visit. In a couple of days he was unconscious and soon died.
This easing of a terminally ill patient's final days was quite common in those days but could now result in a charge of assisted suicide or even Murder. Helstus C is still used in the final days as it can be justified on the grounds that it eases suffering and that the patient may die even sooner anyway, but the removal of a poison draining tube could not be justified on the same grounds, and in our days a lot of questions would be asked, possibly leading to criminal charges. As I took part in these procedures I have no moral regrets at all, and if there is life after death and I meet these patients, I have no doubt that they will thank me.
One of my colleagues was a young German woman, and one of our older patients was a German woman who could not speak English. One day a nurse was chatting with her (something we had the time to do then, and was regarded as a necessary part of nursing treatment, but I believe now that nurses do not have the time to “just chat” with patients) and as she had no idea what the German patient was saying, she was smiling and throwing in palliatives like “really, yes, of course, good” et cetera. The German nurse walked past and translated that the old woman was talking about how her whole family had been killed in the extermination camps.
We also had a young French man working with us who would insist on addressing senior staff by their first names as they addressed him by his first name. While I agreed 100% with his moral stance I am afraid I was too cowardly to follow his lead. I wanted to keep the job.
One of our long term patients was a man who had the shakes, but would insist on feeding himself rather than be fed by a member of staff. While understanding his need for personal dignity it did mean we had to change the sheets after each meal so were not too encouraging. One day his son visited him and my colleagues told me he was a famous person. I had never heard of him so as I was very crass young man I asked him, “are you famous?” and the famous son embarrassedly admitted that he was. I now know that that famous son was Michael Parkinson. I know that his father is still a very important memory for Michael Parkinson and I have always wondered if he and I ever met (I am just not famous enough to be interviewed by him) how he would want to talk with me about his father.
I spent most of my time on the T.B. ward but was sometimes sent to the “mental ward” were such practices as “giving the patient a good belt” was regarded as necessary and acceptable. The film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’ comes to mind.
I did consider training to become a nurse, but in 1974 I went to the University of East Anglia and read Social Studies, I then became a “University” lecturer (I had not thought that I was good enough to study at University). This decision I now see was probably not my best lifetime decision, nursing would have been less stressful.
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