Thursday, 2 February 2012

Episode 2

Being a student nurse in the 1980s wasn't easy.  Others' memoirs from earlier times (such as Jennifer Worth's 'Call the Midwife') chronicle nursing as a way of life rather than a job with little pay, no time off, rigid hierarchies, rationing of 'late passes' and strict rules - an almost monastic existence.  However there was also a solid support structure with matrons, sister tutors, home sisters and communal meals.  Kings College Hospital in the 1980s thought itself progressive and, though traditional uniforms and hierarchies were still very much in evidence on on the wards, student nurses were free to come and go as they pleased with swipe cards to enter the Nurses' Home out of hours.  The staff canteen served food at meal times but there was no expectation of communal eating - and thus little sense of community. It could be a lonely place at times for a girl like me from a sheltered background with little experience of city life.

I had never really been one for parties.  A life-long struggle with my weight gave me little confidence in such situations and I felt more at home cooking a meal for friends or in small groups of those known to me than out at the student Union Bar (can anyone remember its name?) or trawling London's nightclubs.  Whilst loving the career I had chosen I battled homesickness for a while and often went home to Kent on days off, or to my aunt's house in London where there were 4 young cousins to play with. I was also exhausted for much of the time.  We worked long hours with huge amounts of responsibilty placed upon us and were the lowest of the low in the pecking order.  I underwent a host of medical investigations into my exhaustion for which no cause was found.  I now know that I am dyslexic and that adjusting to new situations can cause extreme tiredness for those with dyslexia (learning new routines and procedures requires and huge amount of effort and a drain on working memory).  The benefit of hindsight!

Two members of our 'set' came from Guernesy (Julie Brouard and Tracy - can anyone remember her surname?) and were Salvation Army members.  They had chosen Kings for its proximity to the William Booth Salvation Army College and Citadel at Denmark Hill. They swapped their nursing uniforms for 'The Army's' navy and maroon outfits on their days off.  For me, joining a local church and becoming involved with the Hospital's Christian Union (CU) made a huge difference.  These provided the sense of community that I found lacking elsewhere and introduced me to other student nurses, physios, medical and dental students who would become lifelong friends.  On Sundays off we often congregated for lunch at 'Auntie Bren's' - a single lady in the church who opened her home to students and other singles - and went for walks in Dulwich Park to work off our extra calories!  The church also provided me with an outlet for musical expression and I became a regular member of the Herne Hill Baptist Church worship band, playing piano and flute and singing my heart out.  Some time later, after we had moved out to private accomodation, my flatmate and I joined one of the church's homegroups - and enjoyed evenings in the home of a retired local surgeon who was a member of the House of Lords!  The CU weekends away to youth centres and campsites cemented the group and my place in it as resident caterer and musician and my homesickness soon resolved as I developed a sense of belonging. My faith also helped to make sense of some of the sadness I saw on a daily basis at work.

Meanwhile, life on the wards continued.  Eight weeks of introductory school - where we learned the basics of nursing care and had increasing contact with clinical areas - was soon finished and I started my first 8 week placement on Ferguson, a Gynaecology ward.  The sisters at Kings wore bottle green uniforms with starched collars and cuffs and Ferguson's glamourous sister (can anyone remember her name?) complemented the green dress with her silver bob and scarlet lipstick!  There were three sorts of patients - women having regular gynae operations such as hysterectomies and repairs of their prolapses, those with gynaecological cancers undergoing radiotherapy in a closed room, and young girls coming in and out for terminations of pregnancy in a six-bedded side ward.  The student nurses were mostly allocated to the main ward and we were judged on how quickly we picked up the medical abbreviations in common use during the nursing handover such as  'The women in bed 12a [never bed 13 for superstition's sake] has had a TAH, BSO and HI' (Total Abdominal Hysterectomy, Bilateral Salpingoophrectomy and Hormone Implants!)

Every patient having gynae surgery was admitted the night before their operation and had a pubic shave and 2 glycerine suppositories as soon as they walked through the door.  Late shifts were very busy, admitting several new patients and undertaking their pre-operative care whilst simultaneously putting the longer stay patients to bed where required, doing any evening dressings and providing for their toilet and hygeine needs.  Working on Ferguson I soon became proficient at giving intramuscular injections.  Every patient had pre-op medication of 'Om and Scop' - Omnopon and Scopolamine - given intramuscularly into the upper outer quandrant of the buttock! I also learned the basics of nursing from working with fellow students.  One evening I learned how to show love and compassion to my patients by watching another student - not much more senior to me - dress a lonely elderly woman's pressure sore then provide a bedpan, give her a wash and change her into a clean nightee, smooth her pillows and tuck her in  with a hug and a kiss.  The student's name was Emma - thank you Emma, wherever you are.

On one such busy late shift we had 7 or 8 new admissions for surgery the following day.  The staff nurse was frazzled - not enough staff and too many patients - and dispensed the newest student nurse (me) to give 2 suppositories to a new patient in preparation for her surgery the following day.  The present NMC rules for administration of medicine had not been invented yet. I had seen suppositories being administered before, but mostly under the sheet and I had not looked too closely at the precise location for penetration.  I was also gloriously naive about my own anatomy, never having examined it at close quarters.  Armed with the suppositories, a  plastic glove and some KY jelly I squared my shoulders and walked towards the patient with an air of confidence that belied my inner anxieties.  It couldn't be too difficult could it?  'Well Mrs. Jones, I have two suppositories for you here that the doctor has ordered.  Please remove your underwear and lie down in the bed on your side'.  Mrs. Jones duly did as asked, though she appeared surprised at such a request - the hierarchy of hospitals in the 80s was such that patients did not question the doctor's orders.  Donning my glove, with a squeeze of jelly and a swift removal of the sheet, I lifted the patient's buttock and popped the suppository in the nearest hole.  'There Mrs. Jones, all done'.

The shift finished at 9.15 pm and I returned for the early shift at 7.15 the following morning.  The staff nurse approached me with an angry face and questioned why I had not administered the suppository last night as she had requested.  My protestations fell on deaf ears and the surgeon was most disgruntled that his patient had not undergone the necessary bowel preparation.  Meanwhile, whilst I was making the beds Mrs. Jones drew me to one side.  She told me she was a nurse and she did not think the suppositories had been meant for her - and that I had put them up the wrong hole.

To be continued!


  1. Keep on, Joy! Loved it! Patrice

  2. Would it surprise you to know that I remember all to well the the name of the student union bar ...?! The Penthouse - spent far too many hours there ;o) Also, did you ever encounter student nurses from other wards being rushing to Ferguson having been told 'This is an emergency, Nurse, run to Ferguson and fetch me a pair of fallopian tubes, stat!' ...? I know several who were caught out by that one!

  3. Thanks everyone - Helen, maybe we should write collective memoirs? x

    1. ooh Joy, I'd LOVE that :o))

    2. why not?! Write your stories and we'll weave them together x

  4. I actually boobed up and down in front of my computer when I saw this!
    7 hours ago · Unlike · 2.

    Joy Kemp boobed? :)
    7 hours ago · Like.

    Beth Yearsley haha bobbed
    7 hours ago · Unlike · 3.

    Sharon Manship Enjoying your memoirs, Joy :) x
    7 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Emi Kay I have never had a chance to get to know you in this detail. I admire you...
    7 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Zoe James Hi joy, am really enjoying your Kronicals and very much identify with the nerves of doing a procedure for the first time alone. I remember trying to catheterise a lady in theatre before a c/section and the surgeon pointing out to my that I was trying to catheterise the clitoris. You know how many professionals there are in theatre before a c/section. I was mortified.
    6 hours ago · Unlike · 5.

    Nickie Sutton I had to point that out to a new male *registrar* in theatre too. Don't think he was very familiar with lady bits lol
    6 hours ago · Unlike · 2.

    Helen Treacy I accidentally went up the wrong hole for my first VE, luckily the lady in question had a sense of humour about it! Loving reading these Joy, you should definitely get them published. More, more!
    5 hours ago · Unlike · 3.

    Jane Fucella How do you remember so much detail Joy? I was at The London 1980-83 and so much rings a bell - but I can't remember the details..
    5 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Helen Tidy It was The Penthouse, Joy, The Penthouse! Funny that I should remember that ... ;o)
    4 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Nickie Sutton ‎....and Tracey Foster :-)
    4 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Mel Latteur oh yes this brings back memories! they throw you in the deep end (so to speak!) and you spend 3 years pretending you know what you're doing! I remember catheterising someone in the wrong hole!
    4 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Mel Latteur There's alot of comment on this. I think there could be a book here Joy
    4 hours ago · Unlike · 2.

    Joanna Humphrey Fantastic Joy keep going, I'm loving your tales. You definately should write a book!
    4 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Zoe James This is turning into the confessions of..........
    3 hours ago · Unlike · 1.

    Wendy Gardner ‎... my daily read now Joy, very funny!
    2 hours ago · Unlike · 1

  5. Julie Davies Really enjoying these memories Joy, as far as I can remember Tracey is a nurse practioner at St Thomas' but i may be wrong
    22 minutes ago · Unlike · 1.

    Joy Kemp hope my memories of you are correct Julie - feel free to chip in!

    1. have looked up Tracey in the St Thomas' staff directory and she's not there - unless she has changed her name of course

  6. Anne Cooke

    Excellent, get in there and find a publisher while nurse memoirs are all the rage!

    Anne xxx

    PS Looking forward to the ‘Freya arrives’ instalment!!!

  7. I loved the famous King's green .Green used to be the colour of the Sister's uniform but the green was not the dull dark green normally associated with school uniforms .It was bright , almost dazzling mid green .More like the colour of Evergreen or the green of the Irish shamrock .Shamrock green .Yes , Shamrock .The Shamrock green dresses had long sleeves which were rolled up and placed into white cotton 'sleeve keeper-uppers ' Hence each ward in the old Kings building had a 'Sleeve Room' ! I can still picture the sleeve room of V & A quite clearly .It was also where the linen aprons were placed by the linen department for our use .We wore the same linen apron ALL DAY !

  8. By the way . I am very excited by your blog Joy. This partly because for me , leaving Smallville with its Smallville mentality going to Kings to train to be a nurse was the height of glamour , almost decadence .In Smallville to enter 'The Big Smoke ' was considered crazy .London , inparticular central London was considered 'dodgy ' .Camberwell in particular had it's colourful areas full of wierdos.The drug addicts shocked me quite a few homeless young addicts used to allegedly squat in an empty building named 'Dickie Dirts ' which was just a block away from the Dental School .... No-one was ever sure what Dickie Dirts ever used to be before it got boarded up & but the name itself sounded seedy enough .
    I recall the first young heroin addicts I encountered on Annie Zunz Ward .I remember feeling so shocked at how young these girls were ( Teens /early twenties ? ) and addicted to drugs .They were barely alive .They looked cachectic .One of them had no teeth ! For me it was so shocking to see the extremes of human misery , poverty and homelessness and addiction . I have never forgotten these sad individuals .

    1. I'm really enjoying reading everyone's replies and their own memories - we all seem to be prompting each others' memory banks. Christina, I think I was so naive I wouldn't have recognised a drug addict if I saw one. I did a whole summer of nights on Annie Zunz though - maybe that could be the next installment!

  9. Alana Portsmouth Looking forward to reading them while I recover from surgery!!!
    12 May at 03:14 · Like

    Joy Kemp Oh hope you heal up soon x


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