Two months isolation
When I was nine or ten, in the late 1950s, I was rushed to Brighton General Hospital and there diagnosed with rheumatic fever – a disorder almost never seen in this country any more. I was, of course, admitted to the children’s ward but what this looked like, I was only to find out a couple of months afterwards. For those two months I was in isolation, in a side room. I was also on ‘complete bed rest’, something that almost never happens anymore. I was allowed to do nothing. I was fed and had to have drinks through a feeding cup with a spout. There was no television but I was rigged up with a contraption that allowed me to read books by turning over the pages via a lever under my chin. After two months, I was transferred into the main ward.
Bleak and dimly lit
In those days, almost all hospital wards were of the Nightingale variety – two long rows of beds on either side of the ward. The ward was a bleak place, dimly lit, only made pleasant by some of the kinder nurses. All nurses wore the full ‘nurse’s uniform’ of the time, including a white, folded cap and, when qualified, a belt with a silver buckle. All of this was very impractical and not very hygienic. I am glad that many nurses now wear the equivalent of operating theatre ‘scrubs’.
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A reassuring prescence
The ward was very long and very narrow. I have often wondered what those wards were used for when the hospital had been a workhouse. To my young and untutored eye, it still seemed a very grim place. At night, the nurse in charge sat at a desk, in the middle of the ward, with a low wattage bulb in a dark lampshade as her only source of light. It was slightly spooky but also very reassuring to know that someone was looking after you.
Like an army camp
Sister Fox ruled over Brighton General’s children’s ward. She treated the children well enough and was clearly instrumental in helping them to get better. However, she was almost unbearably strict with the other nurses. I saw students cry after Sister Fox had accused them of breaking one of her rules. The whole ward was run like an army camp. Bed wheels all had to face in the same direction – away from the door. Nurses always gave way to doctors, whatever the situation.
The good old days?
Ten years later, I trained as both a psychiatric and a general nurse. By then, most of the ‘strictness’ had been diluted. After forty years in nursing and nurse education, I still do not understand why ward sisters ever needed to be so hard on everyone. I am sure that some readers will look back at these conditions and consider them ‘the good old days’. In my experience, though, wards are better run by senior and junior nurses who respect each other. On the other hand…I must have learned something from Brighton General Hospital’s children’s ward. It was, in its own, odd, way, the place that shaped my future career. I retired, a few years ago, as a Professor of Nursing.