My first nursing job

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Today Ann-Marie remembers back to her first job in a nursing home as a 15 year old.

1965: I had just finished Junior (year 10) high school and entered the workforce. When I think back, what I remember most is the Vietnam War, which was on our TV sets every night as we ate dinner. All the young men were either in National Service or protesting the conscription call-up. The slogan that most epitomised the time was ‘All the way with LBJ’. As a teenager, the 1960s meant miniskirts, bikinis, ‘pot’ and the Pill promoting the fantasy of sexual freedom. Everyone owned a transistor radio and Beatlemania was at its height. Sputnik had heralded the space race and for the West this meant massive educational and social change to surpass Soviet ingenuity.

My first job hardly reflected this image of the ‘60s, for I entered the nursing workforce with all its rituals and tradition. At just 15, I was not old enough to start my general training, so I got a job as an assistant nurse in a convalescent home with some 30 residents, most of whom were demented women.

Besides cleaning, as an assistant nurse I bathed or sponged and fed these women. Toileting was always a time consuming exercise as each individual had to be escorted to and fro. On night duty, besides toileting, rubbing backs and bottoms with metho and changing the position of those confined to bed, I did the ironing and peeled vegetables for the meals next day. Oh how I hated those pumpkins, for I always managed to cut my hands and these cuts stung like mad when I used the metho.

Although demented, each person remained very much an individual, with some being what can only be described as characters. With amusement I recall how Miss K offered me half-eaten lollies because they got caught in her dentures. The trauma of the loss of her fiancé at the front in 1915 remained with her and she had never married. Poor Mrs B refused to eat and became skeletal, upsetting not only her family but those trying to care for her. I remember we even tried to force feed her but she kept on spitting the food out. Little Mrs C who sang hymns and made her husband miserable when he visited, because she no longer remembered him. Poor man, he just could not understand why she remembered the hymns and not him. Being young, I thought that perhaps Mrs C had deliberately forgotten him – who knows.

Mrs H, a dear English lady and a cook in her younger days, tried on numerous occasions to get into the kitchen. Early one morning she finally succeeded, managing to place 10kg of butter in the oven. The cook always warmed the oven first thing in the morning – didn’t she get a surprise to see yellow fluid pouring down both sides of the oven door. My name was mud that day because her getting into the kitchen was definitely my fault.

Occasional disputes erupted between residents, especially Mrs O and Mrs R, who shared a small room. This particular room allocation was not good for they absolutely detested each other. Poor Mrs O used to repeatedly say “oh dear me, oh dear” and it nearly drove Mrs R to distraction, who yelled at her “shut up, just shut up”.

The home had two resident males, one of whom loved to go for walks and sit in the sun. Sitting at the front entrance, he would tip his hat as visitors arrived. One day he was absolutely hellbent on going for a walk, but we were short staffed, as one of the nurses had called in sick and not been replaced. I tried explaining this to him, but he was adamant he was going. Wanting to ensure his safety and at the same time let him enjoy his sun time, I had the brilliant idea of tying him into a small canvas chair with a sheet around his
waist. I figured he was such a tiny frail man he wouldn’t be able to wander off. Was I ever wrong, for the local shopkeeper rang and said “Come and get him”.  I asked “How do you know he belongs here?” She responded, “He had a chair tied to his behind and was greatly annoyed by its presence, so I removed it, he’s okay, but you had better come and get him now”.

One morning Mr M had a disagreement with his room-mate  Mr H, a tall authoritative man. Thinking the altercation over, Mr H went for his shower, but on return found Mr M had urinated in his underwear drawer. I had to separate them for a few hours until Mr H forgot about this.

Even though I was only 15-16, I worked all the shifts, including night duty, with a not so pleasant ‘Sister on call’. Unfortunately I had reason to call the Sister one night as I thought
Mrs C had passed away. When Sister arrived she shook Mrs C, who responded quite vocally with “Stand up you soldiers of the Lord” and starting singing hymns. So we knew she wasn’t dead. I felt like an absolute idiot and never made that mistake again.

My interactions with Sister prior to this had not been pleasant, for she had a nasty disposition, very sarcastic and full of her own self importance. This incident merely added fuel to the fire. I promised myself never to over-react when a less experienced nurse asked me a supposedly silly question or made an obvious mistake and I have tried to keep that promise ever since.

More than 40 years later I carry the memories of these people with love and recall their kindness and individuality.

The month I turned 17, I began my general training.

What are your memories of your first nursing job? Share them with us in comments below or at nurseuncut@nswnma.asn.au

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Great nostalgia, Marie. I was 13 and only had arrived from Austria 5 years earlier, so was still living in Villawood’s Nissan Huts in 1965, but remember other ‘inmates’ also going to work as nurses in their starched uniforms and caps. What a great time the 60s were! It was to be six more years before nursing kidnapped my life.
    Great article.

  2. Thank you Bernhard for taking the time to comment. I am a retired cardiothoracic nurse (45 years) and now write, as you can see. Incidentally, I too was a child of immigrant parents from the UK, we arrived in 1959.

    I know what you mean about nursing, I think I was kidnapped at birth, for I never wanted to be anything else and miss it very much.

    Once again thank you, AM

  3. Memories of past times.
    I graduated in 1974 after three years training at the Mater hospital in Brisbane. I remember the friendships of those nursing with you in our student days. There were obvious flaws with the older style of training, but at the end we came out good nurses, great team players and had a great dedication to our role as a nurse. It was not a job, it took over your life.
    I am still a nurse at the age of 63 working in general practice now. The hours are good, all my life experiences have given me the skills to perform my role in an informed professional manner.

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