Today is my nursing birthday. On this day, twenty-seven years ago, the January 1990 group of students at Sussex Downs School of Nursing commenced their three years of training. On that dim and distant morning, we all assembled in the common room of the staff accommodation at All Saints’ Hospital, Eastbourne to receive our initial briefing from our nurse tutors.
Built in the gothic style, All Saints’ was an imposing building complete with a beautiful chapel that had stood since the 1860s. A former convent hospital, All Saints’ had been taken over by the National Health Service in the 1960s and was dedicated to continuing care of elderly patients and the rehabilitation of stroke patients. On these wards, we would put into practice the fundamentals of nursing care that we would learn in the School of Nursing that was based at Eastbourne District General Hospital on the other side of town.
During those first few weeks of training that I learned and applied the skills of my profession, I also discovered how physically and emotionally demanding my chosen profession could be. Along with my classmates, I would learn the patience required to communicate with elderly people suffering from severe dementia or rendered unable to speak by strokes. I would also learn the practicalities of the Sisyphean task of managing (all too often failing to manage) patients’ continence.
As I look back on twenty-seven years’ experience, it occurs to me that I also experienced my first taste of being on the receiving end of toxic leadership at the hands of the ward manager on the ward to which I was seconded. Feared rather than respected, this woman seemed to delight in making my life a misery and almost compelled me to quit my nurse training in those first weeks; it is only thanks to the support and friendship of others that I remained. Had I not done so, there would have been no military nursing career, no tours of duty in far-flung war zones and perhaps no writing. I am in little doubt that the resilience and determination forged in me during my first months in nursing contributed to my abilities to cope with the crucible that was Helmand Province. I will never know what the ‘path not taken’ would have looked like and it is perhaps best to not dwell on such thoughts.
The public image of nursing has been battered over the years. Whilst in the nineties, the popular press was still inclined to refer to us as ‘Angels’, more recently, one might be forgiven for believing that an admission to hospital will lead to an untimely demise. Although I firmly believe that care and compassion must remain at the core of the profession’s values, nurses are not angels but highly trained professionals. The last time I worked as a military nurse in a NHS hospital, the staffing levels meant that competent nurses struggled to deliver the care they wanted to give. The resulting pressures were such that nurses’ capacity for compassion and ability to provide care were pushed to the limit. I found strong parallels between the NHS ward and the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
All Saints’ Hospital has long since closed and has been tastefully transformed into luxury apartments; Sussex Downs School of Nursing was long ago absorbed, first by the Sussex and Kent Institute of Nursing and then the Healthcare Faculty of the University of Brighton. Much has changed and I am sure much will change in the future and not all for the better.
Sadly, I have long since lost touch with most of the January 1990 intake but will never forget those with whom I shared those early years of my career. On this, my nursing birthday I salute my professional brothers and sisters.