Memories of a Nursing Assistant 1972

By Sheila Clarke (nee Stewart)

It was early 1972 and I was 19 when I became a nursing assistant on South Wing. I remember the shock of the smell that first morning, it was eye watering. This was my first proper job and I was keen to impress, hoping to train as a nurse and I just accepted that was the way things were. My colleagues were all much older than me, some had been there years and they were mostly friendly, down to earth women. The first thing I learnt was to do a neat hospital corner when making the beds. This was very important apparently. The patients on South wing were all adult women.

I remember one very elderly woman, usually bedbound, with a sharp tongue and a frequently prolapsed rectum which the sister in charge used to put back, under loud protest from her. I asked her why she was there, as she didn’t appear to be any more “subnormal” than I was. She claimed she didn’t remember but one of the nurses told me that she had been put away by her family before the Second World War because of her bad behaviour.

Most patients spent their day sitting, restrained if necessary, in the day room, this was an extension at the back of the wing. The few visitors who came at the weekend were never shown down there. There was no activity, only toileting and feeding. We were fully occupied, toileting, bathing those who had soiled themselves and trying to keep order, although few patients in the day room were ever disruptive, I realise now most were just drugged into passivity. One woman was often put in a straight jacket to stop her constantly masturbating. Others removed their clothing regularly. Clothes were usually shared, it was a matter of luck and laundry who got what. Some patients had best clothes kept separately for when visitors were due. I remember a mother who very rarely visited her daughter turning up unexpectedly with an expensive yellow transistor radio which was promptly broken. She made a huge fuss that day about the fact that her daughter was not wearing all her own clothes, but it was only luck that she was wearing any of her own clothes at all!

The more able patients helped out in the laundry and cleaning the wards, a few were allowed to wander around the grounds. I don’t ever remember taking the more disabled patients out into the fresh air. I don’t imagine some of them had been outside for a very long time.

Although I was young and fit the work took a toll on my health and I developed a chronic digestive condition which I named “eggy burps”, these would precede 24 hours of vomiting and diahoerra reoccurring every few weeks, not surprising given the terrible hygiene standards and lack of any infection control. After a few months I asked for an interview with the hospital administrator, a dapper chap, I can’t remember his name. I intended to resign explaining that the work had made me ill because of the filthy conditions. He seemed sympathetic and offered me a transfer to work with the children on West Wing and the prospect of training eventually which I accepted and escaped the gloom of South Wing.

West Wing was a place where it was possible to feel some sense of optimism working with the children. Looking back now I cringe at the conditions the children endured, but we did our best and I loved working there. I was lucky enough to work in the team lead by a Dutch Charge Nurse. He constantly battled Dr Lawlor on behalf of the children and the staff, but in the end he lost and his team was disbanded.

There were about 30 children on the ward, most with severe physical as well as learning disabilities. A small number of the more able children went out to Strathmore school in the community but most were classified as officially “uneducatable” and attended the hospital school.

There were at least two young men in their late 20’s still housed on the children’s ward. One whose limbs were so contorted and ridged that he could not be sat up and spent most of his days in bed or occasionally on a trolley. The other, a helpless man whose devoted mother begged for him to be allowed to remain a little longer on West Wing. There was no access for these young men to any type of therapy in the early 70s. They were so severely physically handicapped that the Dutch Charge Nurse felt they would literally not survive on the notorious East Wing for adult men opposite.

The work was physically exhausting. Many of the children needed lifting, from bed, to chair, to bath etc and we usually did this by ourselves, I don’t remember any bath lifts or hoists, but surely there must have been some equipment to assist lifting? I can’t remember ever using any. There certainly weren’t any lifting and handling regulations in those days! We helped each other as much as we could and were a very united team. The ward, particularly the bathrooms were often filthy, dried faeces smeared on the walls could be there for weeks. I once had to extract a cockroach from between the clenched teeth of a six year old, who would put anything in his mouth, I remember the antennae waving between his lips. Sometimes there would be no clean sheets and no clean clothes left for the children and our Charge Nurse would be off on the warpath again, meanwhile we would improvise as best we could.

On top of all this Dr Lawlor would sweep in and issue orders that seemed often deliberately perverse and cruel. One I particularly remember was the ban on swimming for a little boy with Down’s syndrome. The highlight of his life was swimming day. But he had a mild type of haemophilia so Dr Lawlor deemed that it was too dangerous for him to go in the swimming pool. The poor boy was devastated.

Weekends were very dull for the more able children who had no visitors (and most never had any visitors). Toys were kept in a locked walk-in cupboard, staffing was always short at the weekends and to open the toy cupboard meant not keeping up with the changing, bathing and supervising the more challenging kids! One little boy spent most of his weekend strapped in his wheelchair which was tied to a pipe. His cousin shuffled around the floor on his bottom. One very angry young man with a withered right side, swung his left arm to great effect if anyone upset him. Another would stage escape attempts at the slightest opportunity and the autistic children rocked and bit themselves as three or four staff tried to keep up with 30 children.

But it wasn’t all grim, there were lots of hugs and genuine affection. We would try and get the children outside whenever we could. There was a slide and a climbing frame which a few of the children enjoyed and once or twice I remember taking the children on a picnic to Bushy Park with the hospital school staff.

I do wonder what happened to those children, particularly the more able kids who should never have been there in the first place. One child was profoundly deaf and in a wheelchair. He had a hearing aid for school, but of course did not wear it on the ward because it would be broken by lunchtime. He communicated by basic gestures and had a brilliant sense of humour. I don’t believe he had any degree of learning disability but in those days without family maybe there was nowhere else to put him. A little girl who had Down’s syndrome (still referred to then as being “a Mongol”) was amazingly able and at aged six loved books and would chatter away to anyone who had time to listen. They just needed a normal family life. I do hope that some of them were better placed in the years that followed.

Post originally published on the Normansfield Hospital Blog 27 September 2013