Friday, March 08, 2013

Half a century of nursing

It's pretty hard watching your mum die. I ain't gonna lie. But when I try and project myself into the future, to when she's gone, I can see I will be glad to have had some notice of my imminent motherlessness. I have had some amazing messages of support, especially from people who have been here. One of them said 'take what you can from [this time]. There are good moments'.

I already agree. When I was younger, till probably about 10 years ago in fact, I thought I had precious little in common with my mum. I loved her very much, and we got on fine, but we never hung out in that spa-break chicklit sort of way. I took her to the Sanctuary once, by way of a thank you for a lot of decorating she helped me do, and the look she gave the woman who approached with complimentary macaroons and pink Prosecco would have felled a tree. I tried a naked swim in the famous Sanctuary pool, based on an assumption that she would be unfazed. She was unfazed. In fact she said 'well at least you won't sink with bazookas like those'.

But recently, when she's been well enough, we've done a lot of talking, and I've learnt a few things about her that I never knew. My mum started nursing when she was 18, and would have marked 50 years as a state-registered nurse if she hadn't had to give up work when she became ill in September. It's a side of her I have experienced at home - when she looked after me when I was ill as a child and young adult, or more recently when I've rung her up to ask how to treat something afflicting me or M - but I've never known much about her working life. I guess I never asked. Oh, the arrogance of youth.

What a time to have nursed through. At her mother's insistence, she applied to and got a place at St Thomas's teaching hospital, v prestigious, but she would have had to wait a year before she could take it up, and she decided she couldn't be bothered. So she went out and bought the Nursing Times and wrote off to various hospitals running training courses. They all offered her a place and she chose St Nicholas's Hospital in Plumstead because it had a brand new nurses home with central heating.

She said that Plumstead in 1962 "smelt like burnt carrots". The course itself, and the nurses home, had near-military levels of discipline, but she'd grown up with a tyrannical father, and been to 11 schools as they moved around after the war (he was in the RAF) and she wasn't bothered. She liked the central heating, and the hot running water. And she liked the nursing - she has quite bad dyslexia, so she found the exams terrifying, but she was great at the practicals. Her fellow students were from all over the Commonwealth - the hospital took Rhodes Scholars, so she trained with women from Ceylon, Malaya, Burma, Canada and South Africa. It must have been amazing. I'd seen some photos from her student days, but somehow never wondered how such a diverse range of young women came to be hanging out together in the early 60s. There was also a nurse from Orkney, who nobody could understand because her accent was so thick. She got pregnant, and had to leave. The ward sisters sounded terrifying, but as my mum says, they'd lived through the war, they weren't young anymore, and "life had given them a box of broken biscuits".

They were not easy times. She remembers girls coming in with septicemia from illegal backstreet abortions. When termination became legal, she remembers sobbing 14 year olds being brought in by their mothers, who didn't stay to hold their hands. And she remembers, when it was still a criminal offence to kill yourself, the police coming into the hospital to try and arrest people recovering from failed suicide attempts.

But the NHS was still young and hopeful, and she saw some amazing things as well. In the very early days of microsurgery, she looked after one of the first people to have a corneal graft. She was at his bedside holding his hand when they took off the bandages and asked him what he could see. He looked at my mum and said 'the most beautiful pair of brown eyes you could imagine'. She had a little cry when she told me about that, and I had a little cry with her.

Since then she's worked in all kinds of places - in A&E, where she was put off alcohol for life, in obs & gynae, on geriatric wards, in a hospice, as a school nurse, in a baby clinic, on surgical wards. She knows how to look after people. Now it should be our turn to look after her, but she still does a lot of it herself, except when things are really bad. She has a blue bucket by the bed. I recognise that bucket, I said. Oh yes, she said, we've all been sick in that bucket.

So this International Women's Day, I celebrate my lovely mum, and thank her for showing me what it means to engage with the world on your own terms.


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Anonymous Peter H. said...

Thought vibrations and all that....About 20 minutes ago completed the first half of `Austerity Britain', which ends with the day the National Health Service launched. Thought of your mother. Wondered what the latest was (having heard the news from M. a few weeks ago). Wondered if you were blogging again...and discover you have just written this. It's magnificent and clearly your mother is too. Everyone who has already (as inferred) told you that you'll be grateful afterwards to have had this interlude, this opportunity, is telling the truth. You will be. As for what you have written there, one can only say: thanks for sharing. The `anthology' genre presumably persists. It should be anthologised.

3:32 am  
Blogger Ben said...

Wow. Is all I can say. What a woman. Okay, not all I can say.

9:26 am  
Anonymous jonathan said...

Really sorry to hear of the difficult time you and your family are going through Joella. I'm sure everyone is right though, that the little and larger things you learn from talking and listening to your mum during this time will give you great strength to cope when the inevitable time comes that she's no longer with you. The story about the awaking patient and the beautiful brown eyes on its own will surely be recounted for generations to come and strikes me, from what you have shared with us about your strong, kind mum, as an eloquent and fitting tribute.

11:20 pm  

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