I’ve set myself a goal or reading as much real-life nursing literature as I can. Sure, I have my Royal Marsden for all the technical know-how. But I really believe being a good nurse involves learning from the pros. So when I stopped by The Works for the seventieth time since moving into our new apartment, I spotted a book I knew had to grace my shelf.
Sixty Years a Nurse tells the story of Irish-born-London-living nurse Mary and her transition from timid nursing student to, well, just read the blurb:
When 18-year-old Mary Hazard touched down in post-war Putney to begin her nurse’s training, she could never have known that it was the beginning of a colourful career that would still be going 60 years later – one of the longest ever serving NHS nurses.
For Mary, raised in a strict convent in rural south Ireland, working in her first London hospital was a shocking and life-changing experience. Against a backdrop of ongoing rationing and poverty, she saw for the first time the horrors of disease, the heartbreaking outcomes of failed abortions – and faced the genuine shock of seeing a man naked for the first time!
60 Years a Nurse follows the dramas and emotions as Mary found her feet during those early years. From the firm friends she made under the ever-watchful gaze of Matron and the sisters, to the eclectic mix of Londoners she strove to care for; the Teddy Boys she danced with and the freedom of living away from home; and her own burgeoning love story, as extraordinary as it was romantic – these are the funny and heartwarming moments that helped Mary to follow her dream.
Its informal, conversational tone made it perfect reading for while I was actually in hospital recovering from my laparoscopy and other such procedures. How nursing has changed. So-called simple diseases such as diabetes had a high mortality rate back in the 50s, and antibiotics such as penicillin were a new invention being tested and trialled on patients.
Nurses were completely different to the autonomous beings they are today, and students back then were expected to have their hospital corners pressed and streamlined ready for inspection from the matron-in-charge! Capes and starched hats were uniform, rather than the comfy dresses and movement-inspired tunics we have now. Now, Health Care Assistants do a lot of the work student nurse Mary was doing, such as making beds and helping patients wash and eat their meals. And us student nurses are taking on more doctor-like roles with medication and treatments and ensuring they’re being looked after as best they can.
Mary detailed her career from its small start in Ireland to the big leap into London’s gritty, grimy underbelly and the shiny new venture, the NHS. Dodging the matron and sneaking out to drink and dance formed much of her early years as a student in the nurses’ home, while coming back in the morning hungover and having to hide in the sluice! It’s a comforting, emotive read as she charts her failures and sucesses way before all the mod-cons we’re treated to. She speaks warmly of those memorable patients that still remind her why she chose nursing as her career. From the homeless man looking for warmth on a freezing winter’s night, to the posh man who wouldn’t survive much longer and passed away while she was off-shift, and the cheeky ambulance staff dropping off recently deceased patients to avoid paperwork!
In a way, I wish I was able to experience the cap and cape style of nursing Mary did. But reading through the pages (you’ll find it impossible to put down) I’m glad I’m being trained to be an almost lone warrior. Gone are the days a doctor demanded and the nurse delivered. Now, nurses champion their patients and fight for their causes. We work in totally different ways, and with the 6Cs as our guidance.
For anyone who loves a dip into the social history of post-war London and the medical progression we’ve made, it’s a worthwhile, totally irresistible read. You’ll wish she wrote more about her career. Still, all the pages int he world wouldn’t be able to cover everything she did in her career!
Sixty Years a Nurse | The Works (purchased offline)