Another jewel from Pen & Sword, especially for those of us interested in the Caring Professions:
Nursing Through the Years: Care and Compassion at the Royal London Hospital by Loretta B Bellman, Sue Boase, Sarah Rogers, Barbara Stuchfield
Nursing has always been a challenging but rewarding profession. As part of the core healthcare team, nurses take responsibility for the care they provide to patients, displaying both compassion and discipline in their daily work.
Demanding professions require rigorous training, and nursing is no exception. As the real story to ‘Call the Midwife’, Nursing Through the Years is a unique book that spans eight decades to reveal the fascinating lives of nurses who trained and worked at The Royal London Hospital, serving the community of the East End of London.
Having interviewed over 85 nurses, whose experiences span from the 1940s to the 2000s, this important account captures the memories of their time at The Royal London. Exploring each decade, the extent to which nursing has developed and changed, and the highs and lows of training to be a nurse in a renowned teaching hospital are recalled in detail.
It is a treasure chest of recollections which are informative, entertaining, inspiring, enlightening and also controversial, often challenging the myths and misconceptions that continue to surround nursing today.
About the authors:
The co-authors of Nursing Through the Years all trained at ‘The London’ and are members of the League of Nurses. Their career development encompasses clinical, community and academic work within the UK and beyond, including Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the USA. They feel privileged to have undertaken the project and to have produced the book, the prized outcome of their collaboration.
Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a paperback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
Although I have no personal connection to the Royal London Hospital, and have never set foot on it, I was fascinated by the description of the book, both the subject and the methodology. Four nurses decided to document the changes in nurse training (and practice) by interviewing over 80 nurses from a specific hospital. The Royal London Hospital (initially the London Hospital) was at first a voluntary hospital, and joined the NHS when it was created in 1948. The book follows the role of nurses and how it changed, from the 1940s until now, reflecting also the changes in the caring professions in the UK in the last 80 years, and also the social and historical changes affecting London and the country at large. As those who read the book will see, these changes reflected practices in other countries as well, and moved from an apprenticeship model to a degree career, with an increase in specialisation and a diversification of staff and patients (the changes in the social milieu are mentioned often by the interviewees and the changes in the East End of London make it at the same time unique and representative of the country at large).
I am a big believer in the importance of social history, and in the need to collect the testimonies and memories of people who are not usually given a voice in history books or chronicles of an era. Projects such as this, involving qualitative research (rather than quantifying things) are the best way to capture truly important subjects and matters that cannot be reduced to numbers and given a monetary value. The book is carefully researched, and it includes a foreword that sets up the scene and familiarises readers with the London Hospital and its history, as well as an introduction that explains the reasoning behind the project and also the methodology, while also introducing briefly the concept of modern nursing. The book contains a wealth of illustrations (with credits where these could be located. I particularly enjoyed the early photographs and the sketch of the uniform designed by Norman Hartnell in 1942), acknowledgements, a timeline, and then each chapter is dedicated to a decade from the 1940s onward, with the last two chapters dedicated to moving on (the paths followed by the nurses of the Royal London after they finished their training) and reflections on how things have changed. There is also a glossary of terms, a detailed bibliography, and an index to help those interested in further research.
I have said I have no connection to the Royal London Hospital, but I worked in hospitals in the UK for a number of years (in psychiatric units, although we also had to visit other parts of the hospital), and one of my best friends trained and worked as a nurse in the UK for quite a few years (now she works in France, still as a nurse), so I was familiar with some of the concepts discussed, especially with the changes in the 1990s and since, and I was fascinated when reading about the profession and how it had evolved. Of course, I’ve heard nurses who had been in the profession for a very long time recalling their experiences, when there were huge hospitals and convalescence homes, when they had to live in nurses’ accommodation in the hospital grounds and life revolved around the hospital, and some of the rules and regulations that seem to make so little sense now. (Doctors and nurses’ accommodation still existed when I first went to the UK in 1992, but it was phased out not long after). There are some commonalities and themes that pop up again and again, about learning the basics, caring for patients, what a scary experience it was to work in a ward for the first time, the first death, the memorable patient, being in charge of a ward for the first time, night duty, and although not everybody shares the same opinions as to the future of the profession, the book offers a fantastic kaleidoscope of the last 80 years of the nursing profession (particularly in the UK).
Although it’s true that the profession has changed enormously (it is no longer a profession only for women and evidence-based practice is now one of the pillars of all interventions), and now people don’t stay in hospital for weeks and months after an operation, caring and nursing care are as necessary (if not more) than ever, and remembering the road travelled and listening to those who had walked it are fundamental to ensure that we learn from their valuable experiences, both old and new, and act in consequence. Perhaps it is a somewhat romantic take on nursing, but I’ve always thought that while some professions might be a matter of choice, others do require a calling, a vocation, and the caring professions (together with teaching) are a great example of that.
I highlighted many quotes and anecdotes as I read the book, but I’ve just chosen a couple that resonated with me in particular:
My message is plain and simple, you are there to care for the patients, never forget the patient with everything else that’s going on, whether it be administrative or financial or political shenanigans that go on in this place, you’re there for the patient, don’t forget them because the patient sometimes does get forgotten. Andrew (p. 113)
I’d just like to be remembered… for doing the best that I could, for being supportive to the staff, and giving the best care I possibly could to the patients. Kim (p. 196)
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget Paula Day’s wonderful artwork, that visually summarises each decade to perfection.
In sum, this is an excellent book that illustrates what a well-designed research project can achieve and the virtues of oral history. This is a book that will be of particular interest to those in the caring professions, particularly nurses, both in the UK and other countries (and a must for any staff trained at the Royal London Hospital), to those thinking about training to become a nurse, to anybody researching nursing and hospital care since the 1940s, to anybody interested in education… I can’t imagine there will be many people, if any, who won’t have some experience of being cared by a nurse at some point, and if you feel at all curious about their training and their lives, this is the perfect book for you as well. (In case anybody worries, although of course the book talks about patients and illnesses, there are no gory or detailed descriptions of surgical or medical procedures, so no matter how squeamish you are, the book will not offend). An engaging book and an appropriate homage to nurses all over.
Thanks to Rosie Croft, Pen & Sword, the authors and all the nurses for their tireless work, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling.