One of our residents at Woodport Retirement Village, Bridget Sharp, is a wonderful story-teller. She took some time to share some insight into her life as a nurse in the 1950s and her thoughts on the industry today. So we share with you, her own words.
Here’s her story:
"Leaving musical training to dive in at the deep end of nursing training was a total metamorphoses. From the first day, I was hooked. I loved it. The Orange Base Hospital (OBS) in 1952, by today’s standard, was a tiny, busy, country centre of care. Our rigorous training in medical, surgical, eye, infectious, children, operating theatre and invalid cooking guaranteed our further employment anywhere in Australia and overseas. Australian-trained nurses have always been in demand, especially in England.
Night duty was the testing time. We had one 'on call' usually junior, resident doctor, one Resgistered Nurse supervisor, one senior nurse, three nurses in various stages of training and no wards man to help with heavy lifting. We did the lot, to which our hiatus hernias can attest. It was a time of crises and decision-making. Only the tough survived. Nurses didn’t have a union and overtime was 'your own fault nurse' (the Matron’s words) 'for not completing your duties on time'. A sense of humor was an obligatory necessity. We accepted, without murmur, being told in one breath 'you’ll have to learn to think nurse' and in the next 'you’re not here to think nurse'. The Deputy Matron was a wonderful tutor, a strict disciplinarian and in our opinion a total tyrant. When Bailey and I rescued her from a fire in her quarters in the evening, then realised what we’d done, we seriously considered throwing her back. After some debate and as she was in shock, compassion prevailed. Well, we were nurses after all!
One night during the change over report, we were surprised to learn that the Virgin Mary had been admitted and was in a specially located bed; as one should expect. It transpired however, that the poor lady had been transferred from Bloomfield Mental Hospital for surgery the following morning. Alas! Her elevated status was self-proclaimed. Crystal, a permanent night duty assistant, who was wearing slippers, on my advice, rather than her usual squeaky rubber soled shoes, was removing water jugs from fasting patient’s lockers. Suddenly, the Virgin Mary, with hefty physical strength ripped the metal towel rack off her locker, hauled off with it and whacked old Crystal over the head. This rather unholy action knocked her backwards, spilling the water over her hand and into the power point. There she was, her back jammed against the petition with her hand stuck to the power point. Luckily, Sister West quick as a flash dived for the power point and switched it off. Poor old Crystal, by then, was turning blue. You can imagine the resultant to do. Mind you, we nurses wore slippers on night duty, except Sister West who wore squeaky rubber soled shoes. If all were quiet at 1am, we were allowed to make a cup of tea. With Crystal out of her shoes, we’d have known that squeaky shoes meant the arrival of West which meant, get rid of that cigarette quickly and look busy. With Crystal in shoes, we were wasting our fags. 'I’m not wearing those slippers any more', said, guess who: 'The Virgin Mary coulda killed me'. I had the grace to feel guilty and I suppose it did help me to cut down on my smoking!
At 3am one morning McTaggart and I had prepared a deceased male patient for transfer to the hospital morgue which was distanced from the main building. Sister Paul (Fanny) went ahead of us with her rabbit lantern, supposedly to light our way. It was snowing heavily and pitched dark. As we manoeuvered the trolley through the doorway, the left side wheels slipped off the edge of the narrow cement path. The trolley jerked and the deceased slid gracefully off into the snow. We were horrified and Fanny had vanished with her lantern. Mac took his feet whilst I took his arm pits. It was hopeless; he kept bending in the middle. Rigor had been and gone and we had the giggles. Finally, we turned him on his left side and managed to turn the trolley on its’ left side against his back. We kept assuring ourselves that he couldn’t feel anything and that we weren’t hurting him. I’ll never forget that night. Finally with a super human effort and the grace of God we righted the trolley with our man on board. Fanny appeared half way up the path with her lantern held high and intoned 'This mirth nurses, is most unseemly in the face of death'. We cracked up.
At last we reached the morgue, the lights and heaters were all on. Old Fanny had been in there keeping warm while we were going through our drama in the snow. As we wheeled the trolley through the morgue doorway the deceased sat up. He had been a dear man, but tall, thin, dead and sitting up, he was a terrifying sight.
Mac screamed and raced up the path. I gently hugged him back into lying down. He was dead wasn’t he, please God, is he dead? I had never known, at that time, of a deceased person making any movement, much less sitting upright. I have since learned it is not an unknown phenomenon. Fanny turned the heaters off and opened the windows. I left her to lock up. The tears were freezing on my cheeks as I make my way back to the hospital.
In the change over report we learned that the ambos had found dear old Poppy McGrath on a park bench. He was huddled under a sodden coat and was frozen. Poppy was a winter regular and everyone loved the old villain. The ladies auxiliary had outfitted him in bed socks, mittens, scarf and a warm beanie. He had the blankets under his chin and demanded, as always, 'them winders to be closed right to the top'. There were 24 patients in the public ward. The big oil heaters ran down the side wall beneath the window sills and the high windows were down two inches from the top for necessary fresh air. Poppy was not impressed. 'I can’t stand them draughts nursie,' he moaned. 'I was a premmie baby you know', 'you’ve done well Poppy, to reach 88', 'here comes nurse with the warm milks' and 'I’ll bet you don’t get that on the park bench'. The warm milks were for certain patients only. They were laced with a nip of brandy to prevent nocturnal hallucinations which were only sometimes hilarious. They usually disrupted the entire hospital.
Ward assistants, such as Crystal and 'Awkins (actually Hawkins), were country girls - used to helping with chores on family properties. They were practical helpers. So as the dole was not the flourishing career opportunity that it is today, Matron was happy to employ them during their off seasons. They lived in, as did the trainee nurses. My olfactories were assailed at 6am one morning by raw onion.
I screeched to 'Awkins: 'Have you been eating raw onions; I can smell them all up the corridor.
'That’s nothing,’ she replied. 'You’ll 'ear 'em termorra.'
'Now that’s something to look forward to,' said McTaggart who had come in behind me.
I have focused this story on the humorous side of nursing in the 50s. I know you will realise that nurses - in any century - experience more than a fair share of dramas, tragedies and tears than they do of fun and laughter.
Nurses today don’t live in and I think that’s sad. They miss out on the camaraderie and the benefit of being able to share the heart-rending and tragic events with which we cope on any given day.
Matron’s words on my first day were the most difficult with which to comply:
‘Remember nurse; a good nurse never cries in front of patients or relatives’.”
Thank you Bridget for sharing your story with us!