Loughlin Joseph

Life as an NHS nurse in the 1940s: ‘You have to forget about yourself’

In the first of our series speaking to nurses from each decade of the NHS, Evelyn Lamb, 86, remembers the early months of the service, when money was pouring in. Originally published June 24, 2018.

for The Guardian

Evelyn Lamb holds a picture of herself taken in her early years as an NHS nurse.
Images courtesy of Antonio Olmos

The early days of the NHS were so exciting. We never had any doubt that it would work. I was in the first cohort of training nurses, in a hospital in Lincoln, just shy of 18 years old. In our first nine months, we weren’t allowed to do anything technical, but just made ourselves useful – we helped in the kitchen, passed things to the doctors, and studied in technical college at the same time. Then we went to PTS [preliminary training school], where we learned how to give bed baths, do dressings, take temperatures and make poultices. It was hard work, and we had to be in at 11pm at night. And remember there was nothing disposable back then – aprons, syringes, everything had to be boiled. And we never wore gloves, apart from in the theatre.

Nursing during the polio epidemic has never left me, really. I remember some of the nurses went home, they were so frightened by the isolation hospital. I had to nurse people in iron lungs, including a lovely little girl who was only six. She was a great fan of [the radio thriller] Dick Barton, and I remember the chap who played him coming to see her. Years later, I read she died, and found out she had been the youngest person to live in an iron lung. I think of the progress we’ve made with ventilators, and I see her.

To learn to cope as a nurse, you’ve got to have the ability to forget about yourself. You have to strengthen that ability to focus on the people you’re looking after. I still take that rule. If you dwelled on your own feelings, you’d be overcome.

There was so much money coming into the NHS in its early days. Before, hospitals had [separate] concertina screens, and now we had [fitted] curtains! Lincoln had a lot of industry back then, and we had a lot of men coming in with hot metal in their eyes from the furnaces. The best part of the job was the satisfaction you felt when you were on night shift, making the beds on one side of the ward, making the patients comfortable. That was lovely.

Lincoln had a student nurse committee quite early, and a hospital representative committee – I was on both, and that stood my work in good stead. Listening to those voices is so important. I left Lincoln after getting married and had three children, but picked up part-time district nursing around that. District nursing was always changing, with different managers having different ideas. We should look to that managerial level when we think about the NHS now. Managers need to think about how to make better use of the skills of their staff. Skills aren’t properly used, and when you’re using your skills, you enjoy your job.

Since retiring, I’ve carried on being a champion of the NHS. We don’t realise how fortunate we are to have it. Two years ago, I fell and fractured my femur. I had to be screwed together and everyone who looked after me was wonderful. To not have to worry when something like that happens, to be looked after properly, for everyone to be treated the same, is what it’s all about. Imagine having to find the money to get yourself an ambulance right there and then.

When I look back at my early days, I can relate to Call the Midwife very much. I can’t relate to Casualty or Holby City at all! It’s not the NHS that’s failed people. It’s certain people within it. But I loved nursing – I never wanted to do anything else.

My advice for anyone starting today would be to keep on learning and studying. All my life I worked for improved academic support for nurses – it makes such a difference. This sounds strange, but you’ve got to be a toucher too. You’ve got to be comfortable with putting your arm around a stranger. And you’ve got to like people. That’s the most important thing of all.

Originally published by The Guardian, reposted here as a portfolio item. See the original work.

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