Well, you know the rest. October 12th is a watershed date: my last as a paid NHS employee, and my first as a pensioner/student with aspirations to hang out in cafes, writing and wearing odd-looking hats. I have projects to finish – an online training package for capacity interviewing, and a working virtual clinical area for researchers, clinicians, and service users – so I have honorary contracts in place to keep professional links with Sussex Partnership & Brighton university. About the same time, it’s back to school with a new satchel and pencil case, on the tail of an MA in Creative Writing with Lancaster university, hence the need for hats. If you fancy a look at some short stories, the links are here on my other blog.
I joined the NHS in September 1971 as a student nurse, worried that being left handed and not having maths ‘O’ level would make it difficult for me to function in the role. All I knew about nursing came from Emergency Ward 10 where regulation was everything, and the Carry On films where it clearly wasn’t. Although both illustrated perfectly the state of the art with its formidable ward Sisters, cowering staff nurses, scuttling students, and on-tap doctor-totty. I chose my training hospital carefully. I looked at Barts, the London, Guys, and turned them all down in favour of their out of town poor relation, the North Middlesex. Why? Superior reputation? Close to theatres (artsy ones, not operating ones)? No, it was because the others sent me a list of items to bring with me, the most intrusive of which, to my mind, was the four pairs of navy blue knickers.
Quite apart from the fact that my knicker colour of choice would have been bottle green (school colours, obviously), this was not school and I was not eighteen. In fact, I was so not eighteen that I had already been inducted into adulthood through spending a year at Brighton college of Art (in 1967 when it was possible to see diamonds in Lucy’s sky by inhaling even if you didn’t smoke), finding myself abandoned to the streets when Yorkshire council withdrew its out of county student grants, and working in a factory designing hot water bottle covers one week and packaging for Mary Quant cosmetics the next. That was followed by a couple of years working for a Leeds company that leased gaming machines to pubs and clubs, designing the interiors of some of the first pub discos in the UK, and trotting around the country (and occasionally off to what we referred to in awed tones as The Continent) at the behest of a boss whose idea of professional development was what you might call physical. I was not interested in having a loco parentis, the North Midd was not interested in being one to the point of regulating my underwear, and so I was interested in the North Midd.
I survived. Better, so did the hospital and a fair number of its patients, although back then critical injuries and a whole range of diseases meant fewer admissions got to be happy discharges and most of us saw more dying than we might have anticipated. I don’t imagine the numbers have changed much, but the bar has been raised. People we could not save are more likely to go home now, but the severities and activity levels demanded have taken up the slack. We sat with patients, fed them, spent hours in the toilets with them while they ejected foul material from both ends, washed their hair after dismantling the end of the bed, lifted them off the floor when they fell, and hauled them up and over in their beds without hoists because there were none. An elderly patient collapsed while I was getting him out of bed and took one of my lumbar discs with him.
I delivered two babies, started a students’ union, learned how to apply bandages and to tuck in sheets so they didn’t wrinkle. I worked nights for three months at a time and discovered that going shopping after a shift was unwise, unless coming home with a pair of boots a size too big instead of the washing powder you went out for counts as a plus. We resurrected the hospital pantomime and very nearly killed the Matron with one of the lights. We were visited by the Radio One Road Show with Ed (Stewpot) Stewart who managed to deliver a decent programme despite being confronted by serried ranks of Assistant Matrons in navy blue frocks and starched bosoms instead of the roomful of bopping nurses he might have expected. There was an exhibition of nursing and my artist’s credentials were unearthed so that I was asked to paint the setting for the ‘Sarah Gamp‘ midwifery display. I was given afternoons off and delivered rats in a fireplace and rags on a stool. I discovered intensive care.
I also discovered psychology. The first time was during a ward evaluation when the observation was made that I seemed to understand ‘the suicides and the head injuries’. What that meant and why the two would be bundled, I never figured out but perhaps it was something to do with both being initially unconscious and so hard to relate to. Not advising the suicides to ‘do a better job of it next time’ might have been another factor. People were cruel. The next time came as I was shoved into a side ward where the post-op patient being ‘specialed’ was flinging drip poles around and yelling that the anaesthetist was wearing red knickers. ‘Use a bit of psychology,’ said the nurse hi-tailing it off the scene. I thought I’d better find out what that was.
That discovery took me off, post qualification, in unanticipated directions: a few months on the fast-track RMN course at Guys which turned out not to be so fast if you got flu or did a midwifery rather than a psychiatry secondment; then by some miracle, a place at Goldsmiths’ College on the psychology degree course. I wore platform shoes to the interview (it was 1973) and confidently ticked the box about designing experiments because, well – I’d been to art college, hadn’t I? I still didn’t have any mathematical competence to speak of so, not surprisingly, the nuts and bolts of statistics gave me grief. It turned out that having a grasp of the shape of the data worked well enough, but I still have nightmares about the seven hour final exam. Yes, seven hours. Really. Of course Finals, threatening as they are to one’s projected self esteem, come as a bit of a relief when all you have to give up in order to apply yourself to the revision is night duty in an intensive care unit where people got flown in from the desert (one of these tried to buy me from the anaesthetist for two camels; he argued for five) and new open heart surgery procedures deposited nests of tubes with a fragile human being in the middle onto uncurtained beds in a unit that scared the hell out of everyone who didn’t work there. I ran that unit some nights. One day I’ll tell you about the missing haggis.
Kings gave me professional refuge for another few years while I began to establish a toe-hold in a new discipline when, finally, nights in ICU to keep a flat, a cat, and a thread of a social life going through a full-time PhD, gave way to teaching evening classes and undergraduate tutorials through an equally impecunious Master’s in clinical psychology. University College couldn’t have been more different from Goldsmiths’, and the Institute of Psychiatry could hardly have been more alien to both. The NHS was my thread – a rope along a flimsy swaying bridge over the chasm into which I might have dropped on the misfortune of one grade from one examiner. Luckily, the examiners, the stars, the fates, the troll mascots you put on the end of your pens, and the particular pen, the purchase of which had forced me into close proximity with Princess Anne when she arrived to open a wing of something at the same time I was heading on auto-pilot for the hospital shop, were all on form. I went from the arty ethnic diversity of Goldmiths’ to the echoing halls of UCL with its unisex students and sunlit dust motes, to the layer cake of rarefied academia at the IoP where Eysenck still lobbed a set or two on the tennis courts and Jo Brand was hollering at Ward 1 miscreants loitering in outpatients.
We’re at 1982 now. Better take a breather, we have Hot Parrots yet to come.
Part One of – probably – three.
Edited 14/05/17 to accommodate images displaced by change of theme.