Finding Sister Susie.

A curious cabinet post.

Once a month now i intend to post an update on the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ which is both a visual set of artefacts/prompts for my writing and a kind of pun filled memory box.  Right now , as i finish and edit the post, i have cleared my locker out at work, thrown my scrubs on the floor of the changing room…..someone else can clear up for a change…..and quietly walked out of the hospital, i hope for the last time.   I guess then that inevitably there will be parts of this post that relate back to the nearly 40 years that i spent as a nurse and all the changes that have happened : many of those not for the better.

And so..”.a long time ago in a distant galaxy”….

It was a tradition of one boat that i sailed a lot of ocean miles on, to run a ships newspaper.  It was written in as spoof shock-horror outrage style as whoever was editing it could muster up, sort of ‘The Sun/News of the World‘  meets your worst parochial local newspaper after a collision with ‘VIZ ‘ magazine from the same era.      ‘Man found in bilge‘  was an early headline if i remember it right.

It’s all so long ago that i can’t remember actual articles but suffice to say that the skipper and mate usually got some scurrilous leg-pull and anything that anyone did that was remarkably stupid usually warranted a leader.  Crossing the line once or twice i think gave us a couple of sessions of ‘court appearances’   and i do remember speeding fines being handed out at one time….it being rumoured that the boat’s insurance only went up to 15 knots…..i hit about 28 during a monster surf one time !.  I think that one cost me several tins of beer as that’s how we gave out fines for most misdemeanours.

There was a slightly serious side, i used to add medical content when it was necasary : the treatment for ‘gunnel-bum‘ being one of mine and i think once a close to the bone(R) reminder about Brazil, Willy’s, STD’s  and condom useage !.  I do remember writing those in a consciously ‘Sister Plume‘ style.  I guess that most if not everyone will now not have the slightest clue what or whom i am talking about : well, Sister Plume was a made up chraracter from the Nurses comic : ‘Nursing times’.  Sister Plume being an old-time old-fashioned ward sister who believed in ‘high, hot and a hell of a lot‘ enemas’s and a tidy linen cupboard……oh how times have changed !.  Just before i scheduled the post for publishing, my mother messaged me to ask if the curio cabinet would contain some of those tacky little ‘a gift from’ pieces of tat that appear in ‘gift’ shops around the coast….well not unless they are in extremely bad taste….perhaps a dildo in the shape of the Blackpool tower or similar !.   There is a genuine vintage enema kit on display so….

Anyway, enough smutty talk and back to Sister Plume for a moment.

One ‘for real’ version of the excellent Sister Plume whom i actually knew got so cross at the phone ringing during morning report time that she whipped her nursing scissors out of her belt and snipped through the handset cable !

Sister Plume….possibly.


Lost at sea  ?, well you should be by now.

You see, i’m working on displays for the ‘curious cabinet’ , i really need to something based on my own nursing career but have a bit of fun with the whole thing at the same time.  At first i just thought about hanging my statement of entry (nursing register) but it’s a poor thing and i don’t even have an old SRN badge as they were scrapped just before i qualified and i was unfeasibly pissed about that.  I had a training badge and hospital badge somewhere but have no idea where either are now.  I did think about photographs of course and i might be able to track down a picture of the old infirmary where i did a placement…..the hospital where i did most of it is as brutal and soul-less a public building as you can imagine.  Where i work now (used to work until yesterday) is immeasurably worse… one of the scenes from Huxley’s  ‘brave new world’.

I’ll probably have my own custom stethoscope in there and i’d like to find a really old, bell style one and maybe some of the other, older stuff that was still kicking around when i started my career.  What i am working on for this first part is a display of glass….medical glass, specifically medicines, poisons and pharmacy glass as most of it is really attractive. There needs to be lots of visual puns as well : an Arsenic bottle will be there because Arsenic is an important local product.  Just across the hill from here are the remnants of arsenic tunnels in the old mine workings : the principle being that the arsenic and tin  bearing mineral (cassiterite) was burnt in a chamber that led into a tunnel….the arsenic tunnel.  The arsenic would condense out on the granite walls and it was someone’s job to crawl through there and scrape the arsenic salt off the wall !.

Nice work if you can get it !… small visual artefact i have here is an all-steel miners compass and clinometer for the underground surveying of tunnels and so forth.  In the garden we have a few larger bits and pieces of old mining hardware that i unearthed while i was working on the gardens here.

Tin mining and it’s highly toxic by-product arsenic were a big deal in the area of east Cornwall where i now live.  To buy a property here it’s essential to do a mining search and even then the mines records only go back so far , not every tunnel, adit and gallery were mapped .  There is one place in a nearby village where the garden of one council house just disappeared into a big hole one day, the house had to be taken down and the hole plugged.  A regular occurrence in that village is that a company is still tasked with taking soundings of underground water levels via long bore-hole pipes under manhole covers.  Apparently the water level is slowly dropping although there is said to be an entire underground lake under the village.


Did you know that one of the most polluted rivers in the world is a few miles down the road in Cornwall ?… i guess not, well that’s the Red river down in west Cornwall and the river bed bears no life whatsoever…..loaded with arsenic. An arsenic compound (arsphenamine) by the way was once a treatment for syphillis and once also a tonic, dispensed, carefully i hope by pharmacists. Dredging my memory a bit i think that Napoleon Bonaparte’s body showed signs of medical arsenical poisoning most-mortem.

Last week i found a completely engaging bloke in the local indoor market when i had to pass through the tin mining town of Tavistock which was once central to the tin and arsenic industry locally.  He had maybe a hundred mixed glass bottles on display going back into the 18th century and everything from pharmacist’s ‘flats’ to genuine medicines and poisons bottles.  We had a quick flick through his picture files on his phone and i was able to recognise and name some of the labels….an early form of digoxin (digitalis) was one that i must find as it’s closely linked to my own career in cardiothoracics, another one was ‘oil ficus which has to be oil of figs….a laxative.  ‘The one that caught my eye at first was, of course, way outside my budget but i have the beginnings of a nice medical/chemical display….the second display link being that my first job after leaving school was as a very junior laboratory assistant.

The ‘pharmacia’ as i am thinking of it, needs some other visual puns so i’m on the lookout for some ‘dried frog pills’ and a  ‘red pill’ or two although maybe the display should only have the blue one just to show that the red one has already been taken.  One of the poisons display bottles will be cleaned out and filled with the remnants from a bottle of Mount Gay rum that came out of the bottom of my sailing bag….it must be 20 years old at least and is still potent : that ones going in either ‘poison’ or ‘not to be taken’.

I already have a title in mind for this one below….. i really do wonder what they are just about to shoot-up on.  Very few will know that Heroin addiction was very common among medical professionals at one time….one consultant that i used to sail with claimed that he spent long weekends on call , totally wired with amphetamines.  To be honest this one below is almost certainly a staged photograph from a teaching exercise : the kit is nice though, glass syringes, enamel kidney dishes and swabs in a dish of spirits all neatly laid out as i was taught to do it.  I did make an Ebay bid on a ferocious looking glass syringe and an old enamel kidney dish but didn’t win either of them.

Party time at the nurses home !

Nurse training. In New York City's School of Nursing Residence, advanced students give the Schick and Dick test (for Diphtheria and Scarlet Fever, respectively) to the probationers, 1942

So yes….my display is going to have some memorabilia from my own career but skewed back a few years in time.  I have found , but can’t afford, an early anaesthetic device designed for using ether as the volatile agent, several cased glass syringes which i can afford one of and so on.  Disturbingly i also managed to find a machine designed to deliver electro-convulsive therapy on Ebay…..ECT was still being performed at the psychiatric hospital where i did my student stint when i was there.

At it’s peak Whittingham psychiatric hospital or asylum as it was once known was the largest psychiatric hospital in the whole of Europe, possibly in the world.  There weren’t many patients or inmates left when i was there and the ones that were had been there for nearly their entire lives…..totally institutionalised.  Whittingham was so large that it had it’s own infirmary, church and burial ground, let alone a full bakery, butchery and huge kitchen where some of the inmates worked.

I did a quick search just to see what happened to the old psychiatric hospital at Whittingham where i spent 8 weeks of my training……and not as a patient i hasten to add.  A few years back when i took a brief look at ‘urbex-ing’ while i lived in Sheffield i found a whole load of photographs of Whittingham hospital after it was closed and abandonned…..several of those pictures i have added to the slide show of Preston Royal Infirmary below as they are linked by my own nurse training…..i think several of my friends worked on one of the old infirmary wards in those pictures.

Just for a bit of nostalgia here are some mixed images of the old Preston Royal Infirmary where i did one ward placement and some from Whittingham psychiatric hospital where i did another.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The medical display should also link to my longer voyages as well because i did the first ones of those as ‘medic’ in a Whitbread race and then a cruising circumnavigation. I used to have, can’t find it today, a crew hat from that Whitbread race on which i had kept a kind of record of the odd ailments and real injuries that i treated during that race.  From memory there were a couple of ‘I and D’s…(incision and drainage of abcess) a bit of suturing here and there, at least one case of hypothermia,and one badly shattered ankle which is the worst actual injury that i have ever had to deal without assistance and advice.

Many of the actual injuries and illnesses that i dealt with have found their way into the blog at some time or other, principally in the first aid series although there a couple of medical posts still awaiting completion and an edit.

Finding sister Susie though.

From my later years as mate and then briefly skipper , when we ran a ships newspaper, i always thought that it was me writing as the stern and rather old fashioned ‘Sister Plume ‘.  I recently contacted my opposite number on the boat, also a nurse and she assures me that it was her writing as the strait-laced traditionalist (sister Sophie) and me writing as the modern sister Susie…..a ‘non directive, non hierarchial area management/ lead nursing facilitator’….or some such totally BS job description.  Frighteningly today there is probably such a job title out there although it’s more likely to have wimmins health , LGBT rights and inclusion in the job description.  Just as a side note here, when i was given the new job description for my last career job it was some 17 pages long…..i think i actually lost the will to live by page 3 !.

Today, as i edit the post prior to scheduling i note that one acute NHS trust has just fired their female and non-white  ‘inclusion and diversity’ manager (£100, 000 per annum salary) for her clearly racist remarks about a while, male department manager who might be a complete knob-end , iv’e no idea…..but that he is actually a person doing a real hospital job …….oh how times have changed when we seem to need ‘diversity‘ managers rather than starched-apron ward sisters of the Sister Plume variety.*

I first met the archetype Sister Plume in the rather matronly shape of my first ward sister, i honestly can’t remember the ladies name today.  She was as strict and severe as you would have expected but of course had a heart of gold had you been able to find it under the layers of starched apron, uniform and i dare say some industrial strength corsetry.

One time, about a month into that first ward placement i was working in a bay on the ward while sister was doing the medicines round from an old style wooden drugs trolley. One of the auxiliaries , today called health-care assistants, came out from behind a curtain and said something to discretely to sister.  The sister locked the drugs cupboard and briefly disappeared behind the same set of curtains.  A moment later she beckoned me over with a steady ‘come with me Mr Yates…always called me mister’ . It was the kind of no nonsense voice and command that would bring a stroppy registrar to heel or have a student nurse in tears.    We stepped behind the curtains, sister was standing close enough that she was able to whisper very quietly that the patient had just passed away and that i was at about the right point in my career to experience that.  It wasn’t a great shock, the old boy was slumped against his pillows, mouth open, eyes shut, clearly grey and very dead.  If i remember it properly sister used my strength to support the body while she got the backrest down and pillows out such that we could lay the body flat.

The ward sister then ‘invited’ me into the office and what i met then was a completely different side of her…basically kind and caring enough to explain that it’s a good start to see your first dead one with someone steady.  I think i was steady enough myself to ask a couple of sensible questions : what we needed to do next and such like.

I remember thinking then , or shortly after, that it was a very ‘English’ kind of death : the old boy having passed away just after his morning tea and without any sense of distress or even the slightest complaint.

Years later i was to end my then career as a cardiac intensive care nurse one night shift in the most visceral way possible in a modern hospital…..with my hands actually inside a patient’s chest, doing internal cardiac massage….in simple terms squeezing the heart , while me and the surgical registrar tried to contain the blood hosing out of the patient’s aorta….very messy, very distressing and ultimately futile.

Iv’e been thinking a lot recently about image and uniform as it relates to nursing, and after having written a short piece as a response to another youtuber : quickly written and as quickly taken down again as it didn’t think i’d put across what i was trying to say. In one section i was trying to say that the overall respect for nurses and nursing has gone down and down over the last 10 years or so and very much at the hands of the MSM (mainstream media).  At one time nurses were always portrayed as angels, now it’s more likely that they are shown turning up in court for anything from drink and drugs charges to fraud , neglect and manslaughter.

Sadly it’s true that some nurse managers , modern matrons to name one variety, chose to focus on the petty and quotidean minor points of detail, who’s hair isn’t up ‘enough’ who is wearing too many body piercings and who is wearing the ‘wrong’ shoes….rather than dealing with the serious stuff such as thinking about why we can’t retain staff.  I don’t want to come across as a uniform bore and, like Herreshoff, always hark back to a time that was somehow ‘better’ but in nursing it might just be true.

I remember the first day of ‘PTS’ (preliminary training school) which was the first day that the girls got their uniforms. In my white smock and with a mess of scruffy red hair i looked like a manic dentist crossed with a carrot.   Of course most of their uniforms  didn’t fit as the standard shape that they were made in, in different sizes, weren’t designed for the long/tall/ narrow/wide and smaller or larger busted among them.   There was much hilarity and some degree of embarrassment as the class first donned the uniform and got used to the totally silly paper caps with their one blue stripe to indicate that we were first year students. When they/we all qualified they all moved into fetching light grey as staff nurses, many bought linen caps and silver belt buckles so although ‘uniform’ there were subtle individual differences.

At around the same time there were those, usually the so called nursing leaders of the time that considered the uniform old fashioned and nothing more than a parody of a Victorian parlour maid.  Just after that the traditional belt and cap were removed and the new uniform may well have been the corporate dress of somewhere like MacDonalds or Tesco. I won’t say that the old style uniform was always totally functional but it was often elegant and presented the nurse in a way that the public liked and respected…generally speaking.    Today, in our department we wear what look like baggy pyjamas , like surgical scrubs but not quite as functional and patients usually have to ask what individuals do…..most days i get called ‘Doctor’ unless i have specifically introduced myself as a staff nurse.

I am of course wrong, but i feel something has been lost, whatever…i look terrible in stockings !


*Just for your reference.

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