Joce Stewart

Get a bunch of nurses of a certain vintage together and the yarns start to flow.

Tales of sneaking into the nurses’ hostel after curfew, practical jokes on the way to the morgue and recollections of that terrifying sister in Ward X.

What these nurses usually have in common is a shared experience of the ‘good old, bad old’ days of hospital training, when both working and living together forged communal bonds that were often lifelong.

Nurse educator Joce Stewart trained at the then Wellington Polytechnic, but that earlier generation still dominated the workforce when she started nursing in 1986 and she recalls camaraderie and fun on the ward being commonplace.

So when it came to looking for a thesis topic, she chose to look back at ‘the way we were’ and explore the collegiality of nursing back in the 1970s and ‘80s. “What were the fun things that rolled us out of bed in the mornings; what were the things that made us laugh and made us smile in an often harsh environment that was fraught with hierarchy, difficult, challenging situations and often responsibility beyond experience.”

Stewart started with the assumption that collegiality was built by sharing experiences and having fun, and then gathered tales of fun, fear, warmth and silliness from still-practising nurses now in their 50s and 60s. She says she wanted to explore the historical context of the camaraderie this generation had shared – back in the days when patient churn and high acuity were not the issues they are today – and a number of themes emerged.

Her research did not leave her nostalgic for the rigid hierarchy and apprentice-style training of the past but did leave her with a feeling that she had missed something in not being hospital-trained herself and a sense that nursing had lost the ‘fun’ element of earlier days.

“I really wanted to explore what it was [that created that fun] and my research reiterated to me that it was the training in the hospital and living in the nurses’ home that did it, as it bound those nurses together,” she says. Her research also raises questions about what collegiality means for the new generation of nurses and how nurses can still foster a sense of fun in today’s busy wards.

But she adds that her research project was also a great excuse to pull together some wonderful nursing yarns from the 1970s and ‘80s. This article shares some of those stories and the themes that emerged.

Rigid hierarchy

Society was changing rapidly in the 1970s, but the traditional rigid hierarchy of matrons and sisters still held sway over most of our public hospitals. Stewart says a common theme emerging from the stories was the collegial bonds student nurses formed by being at the very bottom of that nursing hierarchy.

Do you remember when you were the most junior nurse? You stood up for everyone that walked through the door. (Nurse 3)

Soon as you heard the door open, you stood up. (Nurse 4)

Yes, I remember they would have two junior nurses on and a registered nurse, and at morning tea time, she would be in there suppin’ [tea] and having all this food with the doctors while we worked our butts off. (Nurse 6)

Junior nurses were in charge of ensuring the ward was clean and shipshape, including meeting some pedantic requirements like ensuring bed wheels all pointed the same direction and pillows faced away from the door.

“One of the things that enabled nurses to meet these standards and remain cheerful was the ability to later mock some of these processes,” says Stewart.

Some of the traditions, however, brought back warm memories.

Remember on Christmas Eve we used to go round singing Christmas carols in our white uniforms and red capes? That was beautiful. I really enjoyed doing that. (Nurse 2)

Laughter is the best medicine

Stewart is quick to add that, of course, nursing was still a serious business, with patients in hospital because they were ill or dying. “Despite the gravity of the situation, nurses found ways to lighten their daily working life.”

Humour was an important element of this, says Stewart, not only for the nurses but often for the patients too.

Every single person had their bowels sorted out and a bath because there were no showers, we only had one bath. The patients would be sitting there on the toilet, with only a curtain around – no privacy – only a curtain between each patient, and we would be singing that Boney M. song ‘… show me a motion, tra la la la la…’ (Nurse 3)

I must have been bored one night on night shift, in between wet rounds, and we actually made a life-sized model of this person, stuffed her with stockings and things, put a shawl on her, put her in a geriatric chair, borrowed someone’s thick framed glasses. It was quite good, life-sized and lifelike and everything. She ended up outside the emergency department where all the drunks who came in would talk to her. We would [also] put her in a ward and then ring the ward and say, ‘Excuse me, but we are missing a patient, she is in a red geriatric chair, have you seen her? No? I am sure she is outside your ward’. She ended up all around the hospital. We called her ‘Malena Stools’. (Nurse 3)

It appears nurses with time on their hands were prone to a little mischief.

There are also tales of ‘apple-pieing’ beds, putting K-Y Jelly on the ward phones and laxatives in the staffroom coffee, sewing up pyjama pant legs, and patient urinals fizzing after being dusted with baking soda.

But sometimes the practical jokes bit back:

Years ago the orderlies used to get an extra $10 for every body they took over to the mortuary. We put this nurse on a mortuary trolley once and told the orderly the patient had died in the dayroom. We gave her [the nurse] strict instructions to sit up slowly when going up the ramp (I was walking beside the trolley trying desperately not to laugh) but instead of sitting up while going up the ramp, she sat up while going down the ramp. The orderly let go of the trolley and the thing went straight across the road and hit the gutter – she fell off and broke her ankle. (Nurse 4)

The nurses’ home

One of the greatest bonding experiences for generations of nurses was not only training together and laughing together but also living together in the once iconic nurses’ homes and hostels up and down the country.

The friendships forged were often instant and lifelong.

I am still friends with the girls I met on my very first day. (Nurse 3)

We cared for each other … we constantly cared about what was happening in each other’s lives. (Nurse 2)

For this generation before tertiary training, there was no returning each night to a student flat (or in the case of many mature students, to their kids and spouses) and the domestic duties of grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning – let alone getting the kids ready for school or heading to your part-time job to pay for your study.

Instead, with long hours on the ward – and in the early days only one day off a week – the basic domestic duties were taken care of by the nurses’ home, giving time for junior nurses to ‘debrief’ after the nursing day.

We used to sit in the lounge after a pm shift and make toasted cheese sandwiches and sit up ‘til the small hours of the morning talking about what had happened in that shift and the fun times we had. (Nurse 10)

In the nurses’ home we had baths where the walls did not go all the way to the roof, so I remember we used to do a lot of chatting in the bathroom while soaking in the bath – do all that debriefing from a bad day. (Nurse 8)

Nurses’ homes also allowed junior nurses to make the most of their limited day or days off. And make the most of it many did – despite the 11pm curfew. Stewart says it appears from the anecdotes that the socialising – and the sometimes ‘rule-bending’ associated with socialising – helped to build strong rapport between nurses and allowed them to get rid of work tensions.

When you think about what kind of work we do, and what we deal with… you have got to be able to let your hair down. (Nurse 5)

We would come in [after curfew], having danced all night. The doors were locked so we would climb in the window, or we had a secret knock for the orderly who would let us in the fire escape. We would sneak upstairs trying desperately not to disturb the sister on duty, all go to the toilet at the same time and, on three, flush at the same time. (Nurse 1)

Collegiality today

Nurse training and nursing in the 21st century has quite clearly changed. Patients are much sicker and spend much less time in the wards than they did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when there was more time for nurses to build a rapport with them over days, and even weeks. In addition, there isn’t the same collegiality forged by living and training together, not to mention less spare time and energy to think up practical jokes.

But Stewart believes collegiality, camaraderie and a sense of fun are just as important as ever for nursing.

“I think it’s hugely important. We spend eight hours of our day working in an environment and we have to enjoy ourselves. That’s what I strongly believe,” she says. “We have to get on [with each other] to be productive and have good outcomes for our patients.

“If we didn’t have that collegiality… if we couldn’t have fun together, then actually we would walk around in bad moods and our patients would suffer,” believes Stewart. “So it was, and is, very important to create [collegiality and camaraderie] in that environment.

And how is that created in today’s nursing workforce? Well, that’s a research topic for somebody else – to find out what stories nurses in this generation will share when in the future they gather together to remember ‘back then’.

Author: Joce Stewart is a nurse educator at EIT’s School of Nursing.

Cartoons courtesy of Joce Stewart’s Dad


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