(Olga’s Diary Continued)
St Giles Hospital: I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Not too long ago I was spending my mornings sitting on a park bench in Regent’s Park feeling sorry for myself and now I’m standing in a line with other student nurses listening to Sister.
“These are the rules for student nurses and I expect you to commit them to memory” barked Sister as she handed each new student nurse a rule sheet.
A stout, straight talking woman from Yorkshire with grey hair and voice that only seemed to have one volume, loud.
“It is my pleasure to guide you through your nursing training until you become fully qualified nurses” Sister Tutor was referring to us by our surnames and when someone asked why, she said that’s how it is in hospital.
“We don’t use Christian names, only surnames”.
Honestly, I don’t like the idea of someone calling me Browney.
RULES FOR NURSES
- walk at all times, only run in case of fire
- stand when a senior member of staff enters
- always open the door for the doctor
- never overtake a senior member of staff on the stairs
- no make up on duty
- hair not to reach your collar
- nails must be short
- black stockings only when on duty and no ladders in them
- low heel shoes
- on duty by 7.00 am
- in bed by 10.30 pm
I felt uncomfortable and awkward in my student nurse’s uniform, my black frizzy hair poking out at different angles under a heavily starched white cap which needs four hair grips to hold it in place. My grey dress had a little white collar which fastened tightly round my neck and was nearly choking me and over the dress I wore a starched white apron with a wide belt around my waist. I didn’t like the feel of the thick black stockings on my skin and the thick black rubber soled shoes felt like lead weights on the end of my feet.
There are nine other student nurses in my group but Alison Moores, Ethel Richards and me are friends already. I don’t really know why because we are so different.
For a start Moores is aristocracy from top to bottom; she talks beautifully and I think she sounds very posh, she’s tall, with dark hair, which used to be long before Matron told her she would have to cut it before she started her training. Moores has a perfect peaches and cream complexion, is very confident, elegant, and looks more like a film star than a student nurse. Her parents are rich and they make some kind of cold cream for women and sold in jars by the thousands. They sent her into nursing because they said she comes from a privileged background and should give something back to society. Ethel asked her why she wasn’t doing her training at one of the big teaching hospitals and Moores said she had thought about it but preferred to be amongst real people in a smaller hospital.
Ethel is from the East End of London, only 5 ft tall with, lovely twinkling green eyes that always seem to be smiling, a round face framed with red curly hair and a cockney accent which I don’t understand sometimes and when she smiles she shows off a set of perfectly even white teeth. Sometimes she reminds me of Vivie because she’s not frightened of any form of authority, neither Sister Tutor nor Matron. Ethel says it’s because she grew up with five brothers and because she’s the only girl in the family she always had to fight for what she wanted.
And then there’s me. One day I asked Moores how she had described me to her parents and she smiled as she said:
“Slim, not very tall, brown skin, not particularly pretty, short frizzy black hair which she wears with either a blue or yellow ribbon, slightly bushy eyebrows above huge brown eyes that seem to be in a permanent state of astonishment at everything she sees or hears, a beautiful smile and a soft voice that fits like a glove with her gentle manner”.
Isn’t that a lovely description?
It’s funny Moores comes from a very rich family and she’s not stuck up or anything. I’m the only coloured person in the whole of the hospital, as far as I know, and people do stare at me sometimes. Moores tells me not to worry about it.
“They stare at you because you’re a novelty Olga, that’s all”.
Ethel says she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and neither should I, but sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable.
Letter to Mammie, Kingston, Jamaica
from Olga, Student Nurses Home, St Giles Hospital, Camberwell, London
The weeks fly by, such a lot to do and learn. We are on duty from 7.00 in the morning until 7 in the evening with only a coffee and lunch break. Please don’t worry about me because I am happy, tired but happy, and I have made friends with two other student nurses.
So far I have learnt about hygiene, how to take a temperature, how to stack linen, how to put a bandage on a patient and how a treatment tray should be laid up. Once a week we spend a morning on the ward and one of my jobs is to feed the patients.
Oh Mammie, I love it so much, the patients are so grateful when you do something for them. Sister Tutor praised my bed making the other day, you see Mammie it’s important to make beds properly with the sheet corners turned in and the open ends of the pillow slips mustn’t face the door into the ward – the sewn end must face the door.
The top sheets are folded over the counterpanes and have to be the same width and the fold has to be sixteen inches. I find the best way to check is to measure from my fingertips to my elbow.
Matron is fierce and Sister Tutor stern and doesn’t smile at all. I find it difficult to remember things so now I carry a note book around with me and write down as much as I can, especially the things I don’t understand. When I meet Joanne she explains the things to me that I’ve been too frightened to ask Sister Tutor to repeat in case she thinks I’m stupid.
Lectures are nearly always when we’re off duty and in one of our first lessons I met Henry who scared the life out of me. Henry’s a skeleton that hangs from the ceiling in the lecture room and we have to memorise the names of each bone in his body. Sometimes when I look at all those bones I think of Aggie Burns. If she could see Henry, I bet she’d love to get her hands on his bones for her Obeah man.
I got into trouble the other day as I was preparing the patients’ tea and I was holding the loaf of bread against my chest while I was trying to slice it with a knife and Sister Tutor was furious with me.
“Don’t you have any common sense and realize how dangerous it is to try and cut bread like that”.
And then she showed me how to cut it on the table. I told her I’d never cut bread before because either Aggie Burns or Cassie did it. Sister Tutor said nothing but gave me a very funny look. I’m not lonely any more Mammie because I have three good friends now and that’s all I need.
Your loving daughter, Olga
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