Tuesday, 28 August 2012

"You'll Never Make a Nurse"

Jan as a young nurse, Ayr, 1964

Jan Clyde is telling me about cycling through the Gorbals:

‘This was early 60s, the last days of gang warfare. Often there was trouble on the streets, and I remember feeling scared, but Sister would say, “Keep cycling. Look ahead. Don’t turn your head!” The thing is, they wouldn’t touch you because they knew you were there helping the community. They’d stop fighting to let you past.’ Jan laughs at the memory now. She was placed with the district nursing team in the Gorbals and would cycle out each day with her supervisor to attend the sick in their homes. ‘I had never seen deprivation like it. People had nothing – nothing but ten children – but they were lovely, and so grateful for anything you could do. The sister I had was terrific. I always say that I learned my complete basic nursing care from her.’

Jan is my neighbour on the Rosneath Peninsula. When we first met she’d just retired after more than forty years nursing in hospitals and the community. This year she celebrates fifty years a registered nurse. I told her that I was trying to write about nurses’ lives and she agreed to tell me some of her experiences.

Like many nurses I’ve talked with, Jan had close experience of illness in her childhood. Her father suffered the aftereffects of a severe fall at work, and became one of the first people to be given replacement hips. However, she credits her decision to become a nurse more to defiance than virtue. Jan, who has a flair for art, wanted to go into stage design, but her mother pressed her to get a ‘real’ job. The subject of nursing came up and her mother opined, ‘You’ll never make a nurse’ and that was it.

‘I was so na├»ve’, she says, ‘I thought it was all headaches and bandages. But I did take to it, and nursing has been good to me.’

Jan started nursing in an environment very different from today’s. Fierce ward sisters ruled and god help you if you were caught out, as Jan was, occasionally wearing nail polish or with too-high beehive hair or having a run in your stockings. The need for order was paramount. ‘But I liked the uniform, the stiff belt, the apron, you did take pride in it. It’s about respect, and having respect for yourself and your role. When they took the aprons away, and the caps, I just thought, I hardly feel like a nurse anymore.’

Working first at a hospital in Ayrshire, Jan was drawn to a surgical role. Having abandoned her early hopes of working in one kind of theatre, she spent seventeen years in another, as part of the operating team. ‘I like the drama, you see,’ says Jan, a light in her eye.  What she didn’t like was not knowing what happened to patients after they left theatre. Later, when working at a hospital in the Central Belt, Jan and other surgical nurses negotiated a system whereby the could visit patients in the wards to check on their recovery and talk with them. It echoes something I have heard from many nurses – the deep need to find out what happened next, what the outcome for ‘their’ patients was.

I can’t do full justice to Jan’s long career in a short blog post except to mention that she also ran an army medical centre, worked in a cottage hospital and spent the last fifteen years of her career as a practice nurse in a Glasgow community where she enjoyed the sense of continuity. ‘I was inoculating the children of people I had inoculated when they were small.’

Since retiring, Jan has re-connected with her creative ambitions and works as a textile and jewellery artist, but she remains a registered nurse and keeps in contact with former colleagues. Now her niece’s 19-year-old son has decided to enter the profession. ‘I tell him about life on the Nightingale wards and what is was like then and he looks at me as if to say, did you train with Florence?’

Jan is modest about her many skills and the thousands of people who have come under her care and passed out the better for it. At one point she uses the phrase just an ordinary nurse. I think that while the individual acts of nursing may seem ordinary to those that perform them, the accumulation of those caring acts over more than four decades is an exceptional thing.

Gorbals scene 1960s

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