Monday, 16 April 2012

Episode 4: Frilly Frolics

First year student nurses at Kings in 1984 all had white belts but were divided into 'paper caps' and 'frillies'. The very newest students wore paper caps (see photo above!) but if, after 6 months, they passed an exam they were issued with a linen frilly (similar to a maid's mob cap) and could lord it over their juniors, having moved one very small rung up the ladder of NHS hierarchy.  In posession of a frilly one could proceed to placements on paediatric and geriatric wards and so I found myself working on a children's ward at Kings over Christmas 1984.  It was a high-risk ward specialising in babies having surgery for liver disease, a scary place for a junior student nurse.  One-to-one mentorship and supernumerary status for students were as yet unheard of.  By the end of our first week  we were caring for patients alone with only cursory supervision - and then often from senior students rather than qualified staff!  I particularly hated working in the milk kitchen. Babies with liver disease had special vile-smelling milk (I think it was called Pregestimil) - and student nurses made it up in batches after a terrifying lesson on the dangers of hidden bacteria and the need for scrupulous hygeine.  I became adept at changing the milton tanks daily and making up gallons of formula but lived in fear that I might make a mistake and kill all the babies in one fell swoop with a rogue germ.

Over the Christmas period we did a week of night shifts - my first ever experience of working at night.  Many children had gone home for Christmas and no routine surgery was planned so the ward was quiet.  We had little to do expect fold drawsheets and deep-clean the ward.  The staff room had been stocked with party food (sausage rolls, crisps and mince pies - all the wrong stuff for an overweight student nurse) and there were copious bottles of wine, presents from grateful families that had been locked in sister's office during the year to be shared at Christmas.  Before our midnight dinner-break the staff nurse gave us a 1.5 litre bottle of wine and sent us off with instructions not to come back until it was finished!  Looking back I shudder to think of the blood alcohol levels amongst NHS staff over the festive season with drinking on duty at Christmas not only accepted but positively encouraged. I had never been a big drinker and poured my wine down the toilet so that I could show the staff nurse the empty bottle, keen to be seen to be playing the game and fitting in. 

Junior student nurses generally had responsibility for the 10 bedded lower-risk bay at the end of the ward, many of whom were long-stay patients with more common conditions such as broken bones.  Previous experience with my young cousins and a brief period as a nanny came in useful when dealing with recalcitrant pre-schoolers on traction and fussy eaters after surgery.  Parents were not encouraged to stay in hospital with their children so student nurses took over the parenting role.  There were serveral sick babies in side wards and we had responsbility for feeding them every three hours.  In between times they were just left to lie in their cots - this seems so cruel now, but it was how things were 'back in the day'.  I cuddled the babies and spent time with them whenever I could but risked the wrath of the staff nurses if caught doing so!

A few weeks into my placement I developed chicken pox, never having had the disease in childhood.  I became extremely unwell and had 5 weeks away from my placement, recuperating back at home in Kent.  I returned to the ward for one final week during which the ward sister completed my practical assessment.  To my intense shame I failed.  She made sure I knew that I was a huge disappointment to the ward, to my set and to the profession and that I would have to repeat the placement at the end of my course.  She shared with me her firm opinion that I did not have what it took to be a nurse and would not be surprised if I didn't make it.  My protestations about having been absent for the majority of my placement fell on deaf ears - her mind was made up.  I left the placement with my confidence in tatters and dreaded the thought of returning to the ward for most of the next 3 years. Happily, my fears were unfounded and I passed the placement second time around, enjoying many of the challenges put before me.  The same sister was so impressed with my improvement that she recommended I pursue a career as a paediatric nurse (more about this in a future installement!)

Although the experience of failure was dreadful, I have been able to draw on those memories time and again when working as a midwifery lecturer, assuring students that I do indeed know what it is to fail a placement and to have one's confidence blown apart.  However, it also taught me not to quit and to face my fears, trusting that right and good will prevail in the end!


  1. The liver babies were also fed chix - another foul smelling liquid which was made from liquidised chicken as far as I remember. Yuk.

  2. I had forgotten that Nickie - thanks! Would be interested to know if your recollections echo with mine?

  3. Barbara Tootill Soung
    So just tried to make a comment on your blog but once written it disappeared! No frilly hats for the provincial nursing schools, just paper ones with a stripe for each year. And once we had taken our finals we swopped our blue belt for a lurid red one. When the Queen came to open the new hospital in Guildford, Prince Philip noticed three of us red-belted students standing together and stopped and asked what it signified.

    Adrienne Blomberg Since there is only a 'like' and no 'love it' button I'll write a short comment to say how I love your Kronicles and am glad you're writing them since you know how it write well! love from Bkok, Axx

    Sue Dalton I remember Shauna's 'frilly'. She tried to keep it going for as long as possible so as not to have to redo it!

    Sue Riddell Can I use this in class please - anonymously of course?

    Joy Kemp
    Yes of course Sue!

  4. Oh the shame of failure! I failed my kipper ... and still blush at the memory :( Why do we do it to ourselves? You were outstandingly brilliant even then, Joyful. Before my own failure, I had a similar experience on Geriatrics where the ward sister was adamant that I should leave the profession immediately - I rather suspect she didn't think I should even wait until the end of my shift ;)

  5. It's amazing we made it through - so many didn't. We are clearly made of tough stuff! X

  6. I had a similar experience of being told I would never qualify by the seriously scary Sr Joanne on Lonsdale. On my first day on the wards (ever - straight from introductory school) she gave me 10 patients, some just back from ITU post CABG (as it was called then). My drips ran through, my oxygen cylinders ran out and a confused patient climbed out of bed and fell. It has stayed with me for 28 years :(
    Your memories are much clearer and more vivid than mine Joy - did you keep a diary? Don't remember the alcohol or even you disappearing for 5 weeks. Menopause brain :(

  7. Ps still have my frilly caps and various coloured belts stored away. Regret giving my heavy woolen navy cape with scarlet lining to charity many years ago...........

  8. Wonderful memories Joy and such a pleasure to read even for someone 'outside' of the profession. Keep them coming - you never know they might be made into a TV series one day!

  9. Helen Treacy
    Hurrah! I was just thinking we need a new instalment :) fetching cuppa...

    Helen Treacy Wow. Was the 1.5 litre bottle to be shared or were you expected to drink it all yourself? Times really have changed...we thought we were being naughty ordering a Chinese on one unusually quiet night shift!
    Monday at 23:17

    Richard Holland The best bit is that your group were not just given the option to have a glass of wine, but told not to come back until the bottle had been drunk
    Yesterday at 07:14

    Karen Eloise Keatley Brilliant read Joy x
    Yesterday at 12:41

    Joy Kemp
    Thanks for reading everyone! The 1.5 litres was between 2 of us!

    Rayya Ghul
    Really enjoyed reading that, Joy! And I agree failing does become an asset when you become a lecturer. I failed one of my OT final exams (for not answering the question!) and I couldn't qualify at the same time as my cohort so it definitely provides solace to any OT students who find themselves in the same position. Look forward to more stories (and photos!)

    Sue Riddell And I failed a practice assessment like Joy - twice!!

  10. Nickie - if you have any photos of our set I would love to see them - upload them on your facebook page X


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