District Nurses' Stories
Whilst working as a QN in Lancashire in the 1960s, I was requested to attend a patient’s home where she was to have an operation for hallux vagus. I got the room ready, boiled the consultant’s instruments, and set them out on a sterile cover. The patient had an open fire in the room, and when the anaesthetist arrived he said we would have to put it out as he had decided to use an open anaesthetic (ether dripped onto a gauze-covered mask). We all carried buckets full of hot coals outside, and the doctor doused the remainder with water. As you can imagine, it was far from a sterile procedure. Fortunately, the patient did not suffer any ill effects.
Daphne Hulme, QN, Peterborough
I was a QN from 1953, in hilly Brighton, using a pushbike as transport, and absolutely loved it, particularly being involved with patients’ families. I was working in a deprived area, but the patients were all so grateful. I had just finished my morning round one day, and was whizzing down a hill back to base, when a small child ran out of her garden and knocked me off my bike into the road. Fortunately she was not hurt, but I was badly grazed and shocked. Her mother came running out and bought me a glass of brandy, which I had never drunk before as I came from a teetotal family. On returning to base, we had to report on our morning’s work to the Superintendent, Miss Watts. I unfortunately had a fit of the giggles and hiccups, which made her really cross and irate. She wanted to know, ‘Had I been drinking on duty?!’
Pamela Siemens QIDNS, East Sussex
When I was a young district nurse/midwife, I took a job in the country covering four villages. I lived in the largest village, in a house tied with the job. The house was on a small housing estate. There was no electricity in the whole of the village, and on entering the house there was a strong country smell of kerosene lamp and lavender polish. The house had a warm welcoming atmosphere and I loved it right away.
There were fields behind the house which were lovely, but a year of so after I had moved in, a few bungalows were built on it to house elderly people.
The residents eventually moved in, and by this time the village had electricity. I remember that there was one particularly lonely lady who would ring me up constantly for me to go round for some problem or other. Frequently, when I arrived home or on my weekly day off, the phone would ring and a voice would say, ‘I saw your light on nurse, can you come round.’
One day I visited her and she told me that it was a great comfort to see our landing light on at night (I used to leave the light on for my young children). Then she took me into her bedroom to show me what she had done.
‘Look nurse, I’ve turned my bed round so I can see your light when I am in bed’. At that time, I had no curtains on the landing windows. I went home and told my husband, who in those days was very sylph like as he pranced across the landing, that he had better buy some pyjamas!
Margaret Modinos, Retired QN, Wales
When my family had grown up, I went on to district nursing for five years around Croydon, which I really loved because it was a different kind of nursing altogether. In hospital, patients do as they are told, but on the district, you are considered a guest in their homes: you cannot order them to have treatment and I found it a very wonderful experience for five years. I loved every bit of my nursing career, especially the district nursing. For in spite of all the new methods and techniques you still had to improvise a lot and to remember that you are still a guest. I used to get some old ladies saying ‘Don’t come here while I’m watching Coronation Street.’
Patricia Duffy, QN, West Yorkshire
I had always wanted to be a health visitor, so when I qualified as a nurse in1966 in Norfolk, I applied to my local health authority in Lincolnshire for sponsorship. I was 21 at the time, so they decided I needed some experience of the big world and said they would sponsor me for District Nurse/Queen’s Nurse training instead! It was decided to send me from rural Lincolnshire to Lambeth health Authority, working from a DN hostel/home in Tulse Hill Brixton. This was for 4 months training to be followed by supervised training back in Lincolnshire.
Going to London was a big culture shock, especially as I was engaged (to my husband) and I had to leave him behind! The home was run by a superintendent and other senior nurses, plus the DN Sister training nurse. They were all unmarried and lived in, so as to keep an eagle eye on the trainees. The training sister was over 6ft tall and rode a Lambretta scooter. As a student, I sat on the back! Brixton had a mixture of residents, several with limited mod cons in the houses.
One day, my tutor decided that it was time Mrs ‘B’ had a warm water bed bath. Her family would not boil kettles for us, so she filled up two medium sized plastic containers with hot water, strapped them to the back of the scooter, and with me sitting on the back trying to hold them on my legs, we set off! So much for health and safety!
Mary Conybeare, QN, Lincolnshire
It was a terrible winter and Kent had had a particularly heavy fall of snow. A call came in to the district nurse from a local farmer: “Come quick! It’s urgent “ So the nurse kitted up for the weather and set off in her car. After a tedious and hazardous drive through snow-filled lanes she eventually came to a grinding halt surrounded by drifts of snow. Miraculously a figure appeared: it was the farmer who had telephoned. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to get through so hop on my tractor”. They pushed on through deepening snow till they reached the farm. They climbed down from the tractor and the farmer, to her astonishment, led her into – the cowshed. He explained, “’Tis my Daisy who’s having trouble with her calf – it’s stuck halfway and the vet said because of the snow he couldn’t get here, but I knew you would somehow!”
From a manager’s verbatim report, mid 1980s.
In the mid seventies, I was working as a District nurse and midwife in a remote country area of Carmarthenshire. On November, I was asked by the local doctor to go and visit a young primigravida (first pregnancy) who was to insisting that she should have a home delivery. My remit was to go to try and persuade her of the foolishness of choice, especially in view of the fact that the baby was due early in January, when weather conditions could be very unfavourable.
After making enquiries as to exactly where the family lived, my concern for their situation grew to massive proportions. The rather derelict former farmhouse was at least two miles from a tarmac road. Without a four wheeled drive vehicle, you could only reach it by trudging over three or four fields. When I eventually reached the premises for the first time, I was even more appalled to discover that there was no running water or electricity inside the house.
The young couple were friendly and welcoming, but despite all my efforts to get them to reconsider their decision on home birth, I failed. I went back to the doctor and asked his advice. He said if they would not accept medical counsel, he washed his hands of them, but that, as the midwife for the area, I’d have to organise things as best as I could. He even doubted that an ambulance crew would be willing to come, even in an emergency.
I later consulted a more senior district nurse who would have to come with me to a delivery in such circumstances. She agreed to visit the couple with me next time I went. Her efforts as persuasion were no more successful than mine. Her comment afterwards was that all we could do was to ensure all the equipment necessary including an oxygen tank and generator were put in the home in advance.
With the help of the husband, plus a tractor, I got all I could in place. I was consumed with anxiety for mother and baby, especially as her blood pressure was beginning to rise above normal. We ensured there were plenty of bowls and buckets of water in the house, and had some lights operating off the loaned generator. One of the couple’s nearest neighbours had promised the loan of a jeep for use in emergency, and I had contacted the local police to ask for assistance to ferry us to a hospital in such circumstances. At least, thankfully, the baby showed no signs of distress at any time.
The delivery date drew nearer and passed, and I knew if baby was delayed much longer, I would be due a weekend break. I contacted the senior nurse, and she and her deputy again visited my client to familiarise themselves with the journey, the home and equipment I had introduced.
There were, thankfully, comments of praise for my efforts to ensure that all would go well for mother and baby.
As I had almost anticipated, the lady went into labour and the baby was born when I was off duty! Typically, everything went exceptionally well, and mother and baby came through the experience without any problems at all. My worries had all been in vain – Thankfully!
When I returned and visited the family again, I was thrilled to see them none the worse for the events. I told them how much sleep I had lost being so concerned for them. They laughed and said their home had been better equipped than many hospitals, so there was no need for worry. Easy for you, I thought. I would have been devastated if anything had gone wrong.
I then asked hem what they were going to name their new baby daughter. ‘Oh, we are naming her the Welsh word for Star,’ they replied. An uncommon name, so I asked why.
They told me that there had been a very bright star overhead the night she was born. I can only say that suddenly I had goose bumps as I recalled another young primigravida who gave birth to a son in a cattle shed with far less facilities. For her too a star shone…
Enid Morris, QN.