Beryl White – Oh no! Not another colonial!
Fresh-faced, eager, confident, or perhaps just naive, that probably best describes us when we eventually made it to England. Ah yes, they were going to be so lucky to have the services of such competent nurses as we two. Anne and I had joined the ever-growing band ofcolleagues who were similarly inclined.
Our first problem on arrival was negotiating the process of registration, This was considered such a high priority it was number one on our to-do list. It ought to have been a mere formality but alas not so. During the previous year there had been a change in procedure about which we had been advised by the Victorian
Nursing Council. A memo to this effect had been sent to London in April, but when wearrived in the first week of January no such memo could be found.
Basically no-one believed us, which hardly endeared them to us. It took a lot of solid argument to persuade someone to contact Melbourne, which thankfully they did. We were right, and the missing memo turned upneatly filed, unread and subsequently not acted upon as it should have been.
We were armed with the most glowing references from senior doctors at our training school. If you were to believe them, they were important men of their profession, and we by association were naturally important nurses. It followed we had to be, if we had been working in their wards.
Employment in some of the famous hospitals we had heard about turned out to be quite an eye-opener. They were, as far as we were concerned, still back in the dark ages. There was so much exaggerated kowtowing to senior nurses. Having been a charge nurse in Australia I was particularly amused. There appeared to be no opportunity for a nurse to have an opinion. If there was something obviously wrong with your patient you were expected to hold your tongue, in case you might be diagnosing, which was simply not your job.
“Really nurse, how do know there is internal bleeding?”
“Well sister, it could be because he is vomiting
blood, has a racing pulse, and is pale and sweating.”
This attitude only got us into strife with these senior nurses who meanwhile were prowling about the hospitals dressed in the most ridiculous headgear. The more important their role the worse it got, until they appeared in huge frilled caps with even larger bows tied
under the chin. Any physical nursing would have been impossible dressed like that.
The night sister at one renowned hospital had a cat on a lead which prowled with her through the wards each night. There was a network of underground passages which were creepy enough, but encountering her was worse. Mere nurses were beneath her contempt and we imports were a bit lower still. In the wards it was common to be greeted with a big sigh and, “Oh no, not another Colonial.” Those of that ilk tried to bait us by suggesting we were of convict stock. One of our flatmates became so irritated by this attitude she
challenged one person by stating, “Australia has not been a convict colony for years; you obviously know nothing about it.” The reply was “Well what do you know about England. What is our national flower?” The quick response was, “A pansy.”
At the time political correctness was unheard of and the subject of homosexuality was firmly still in the closet in Australia.
When we got to England we were fascinated to find the door wide open. There were men holding hands, guys in pink shirts, and wearing lipstick. Anyway, the pansy retort shut up the Pom nurses.
Apart from us Australians, Irish nurses had a really hard time. There was so much unemployment in Ireland that they were willing to work unpopular shifts for less pay, and were barely tolerated. We decided to throw our support behind these girls, even joining them in a food boycott at one hospital. This did little to charm the powers that be, but we were enraged when the official response to a complaint about the food was, “Well there are plenty of potatoes on the menu.”
There were also some seriously dubious practices. If a patient in a private hospital was paying for a special nurse, while also paying the usual enormous fee, they often missed out on some basic services. Any nursing care was withdrawn, even though there should have been some relief for us, for meal breaks, or just the chance to visit the loo. Regularly the shifts were ten or twelve hours long.
An Arab Sheikh I was nursing in a very posh hospital, required medication post operatively which was meant to be administered at very specific times. This turned out to be very difficult as all medication was retained in the sister’s office and she decided the times it would be distributed regardless of the doctor’s orders. Her cupboard was shut, locked and that was too bad. This happened to me, when an important dose was
going to be missed. I was so annoyed I contacted the Sheikh’s surgeon to advise him. The medication turned up but my reputation turned down.
We were used to very strict protocols in Australia regarding the administration ofdrugs, particularly substances such as morphine. It came as a bit ofa shock to be presented with a syringe containing clear fluid in a kidney dish, and being told to administer it. “What is it?”
“Morphine, of course. “Did you check it?”
“Yes, nurse.” “Well, you give it. I don’t know what it is.”
But it got worse, poor Arab Sheikh did not speak English so we communicated by signs. No-one had attended to his needs on admission, prior to me being engaged as his special. I was not aware that he had a large wad of money tucked in his pillowcase, as use of the safe deposit-box wasn’t offered to him.
He had had surgery which entailed a lot of mess involving body fluids, so I was kept very busy, and anxious to keep him and his bedding at least clean and tidy. I stripped the bed with a view to the above, but when I went to collect clean bed-linen I was met with a haughty, “Nurse, clean sheets are given out at 9 am sharp. You will have to wait until tomorrow.” As it was by now about 11 am, I replied, “Well he is sitting on a bare
mattress; I have thrown the dirty linen out.”
There was all-round panic as Frilly One realized this was the Sheikh with the cash in his bed. They did known this was there but had omitted to tell me. I would have objected had I I known. I, o fcourse, was the mug who had to trawl through the dirty linen, but at least the large wad of notes was found.
While for the most part, any contact with medical officers was amiable, if you had the opportunity to speak with them. They were jealously protected by the Frilled Ones much of the time. Being used to a good working relationship with doctors in Melbourne, it was strange to have so much distance among colleagues. But the more senior the doctor was, the more likely it was he would be friendly,
But not always.
I had the misfortune to be dismissed from one case because o fa doctor I did not see, and who was not the treating doctor, but who didn’t like the way I spoke to him. I had been engaged to special a chap called Mr Robb, who had neurosurgery on his head.
As part of the procedure his temperature was artificially lowered to assist the surgeon to spend more time operating. It was very important that post- operatively he was monitored strictly and his temperature was not allowed to rise too quickly. There was a risk of haemorrhage from the wound should it rise more than one degree an hour.
I had worked as a staffnurse in the neurosurgeries ward at home; I was well acquainted with the practice and the management of it. When I came on duty in this posh hospital, I was horrified to find the man was already in surgery. The ward staff in ignorance had kindly prepared his bed, complete with an electric blanket warming it. I just had time to remove the offending object before he returned to the ward.
The damage had been done, the bed was much too warm, it was as feared, the cause of his temperature rising too quickly. Subsequently he did start to haemorrhage from the wound.
I sent for an intern who responded immediately to attend to it and all was well again. Soon after the surgeon came to visit and he was completely satisfied with the outcome. He was an Australian chap from Brisbane so we had a pleasant chat about several things.
While I was busy with my head down, taking a blood pressure reading, a voice over my shoulder asked, “How is he, nurse?” I replied without looking up, “He’s okay now”.
I was quite tired when I finished for the day. As was the custom I reported to the matron prior to going home. Goodness, she had the biggest frilly bow I had ever seen. While I was considering how silly she looked, she drew herself up to her toffiest best to tell me: “Doctor Edwards wants you removed from this case. He said you spoke to him as if he was an intern. When he asked you how the patient was you said, ‘Okay’.””
“Really, well who is Doctor Edwards?”
“He, nurse, is Mr Robb’s physician.”
I should have left it at that but I was so annoyed about the warm bed and complications for Mr Robb, that I said, “Well, if he was a doctor in Australia he would have had the courtesy to introduce himself.”
Not only was I glad to go, I resolved to never return to this place, there is just so much a Wild Colonial Girl can take.