Medical staff from Getting On Image credit BBC
Lately I’ve discovered a few shows which examine the daily lives of those in the nursing profession, namely Casualty 1907/1909 and Getting On. Though the former is a drama set in the actual Royal London Hospital and the latter a sitcom based in two fictional establishments (King Edward VIII and St Jude’s), these programs have been quite enlightening in what I believe to be relatively realistic depictions of those who nurse patients in British hospitals.
In the credits of Casualty 1900’s, there is a disclaimer that the stories portrayed are from “hospital records, private papers and newspaper reports.” As for Getting On, one of the show’s co-writers, Jo Brand, was a psychiatric nurse before becoming a comic so I trust she has a fair amount of insight into working in an NHS hospital.
Despite the amazing advances in science and medicine, nursing is still about the vital but often menial work of caring for the ill and dying. Therefore, as you might imagine, some things never really change that much.
For example, both series had a scenario where one of the wards was contaminated by a MERSA-like bacterial infection. Whether you live in the 20th or 21st century, such conditions require the stripping of beds and burning of its linen, the disinfection of all bed frames and other common surfaces, and re-sterilization of all medical equipment in the ward.
It’s also interesting to note that the steps taken to prepare an expired patient’s body are still basically the same – remove the pillow from beneath their head, straighten out their limbs and inventory any personal belongings.
Nurse Wilde (Jo Brand) and Sister Flixter (Joanna Scanlan) processing a recently deceased patient.
Image credit BBC
Fortunately for modern day nurses, they aren’t required to sew shrouds for the deceased anymore.
Another reality of hospital operations is the constant quest for funding. In the old days, administrators apparently spent most of their time pleading with rich patrons for money to keep the hospital afloat. The London even staged a royal visit from Queen Alexandra to attract publicity and draw financial backing from wealthy benefactors.
Queen Alexandra is welcomed on her official visit to the London Hospital
Image credit Stone City Films /BBC
At King Edward’s, much needed funding for the coffers is more likely to come from ground-breaking staff research…
Most fascinating to me and one of those cultural lessons I love to happen upon is the hierarchy of nursing staff in the UK. From the foot soldier nurses to their superiors, the sisters and matrons, I assume this chain of command was established when the Church was more intricately involved with the profession.
The probationers (nurses in training) were the bottom of the ladder with the worst grunt jobs delegated to them. After graduating to a full-fledged nurse you still must report to the ward sister (who may or may not be a nun) and finally, at the top of the food chain, the strict and uncompromising matron who oversees all nursing staff. Make no mistake, the matron’s disapproval was all that was required for a nurse’s dismissal.
While I was surprised to find the same designations remain, the modern British hospital has many administrative hoops to jump through and a labyrinth of organizational jargon to navigate. Your matron is not only a disciplinary figure but a source of job support as well.
One sacrifice required of nurses that has changed with the times is the restriction that nurses couldn’t marry. At the London, nurses at all levels were forbidden from fraternizing with or marrying doctors at the same facility. If this happened, one of the couple would be forced to leave their job and you can guess which of the two that was going to be.
Nurse Russell and Dr. Walton – a couple torn apart by their devotion to their careers
Image credit Stone City Films/BBC
Now of course, there’s no taboo on married nurses. In fact, Nurse Kim Wilde is married and has a whole brood of children she can’t wait to get away from. Of course, a hospital romance between a supervisor and one of his subordinates is still likely to be frowned upon and like most other workplaces, gossip and recriminations aren’t surprising.
Not everyone can follow in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale, of course, but it does take a special person to be a nurse. Preferably one with stamina, a strong stomach, and an abundance of patience. If you’re a nurse in the UK, I’d love to hear how your reality differs from the telly versions of your job. If you’ve been a patient (which is statistically more likely) what is the public perception of nursing as a profession? I like to think the telly mirrors the culture it portrays, but it’s always a good idea to corroborate your facts, I suppose.
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