To be a nurse was not a childhood dream of mine. It was only after two years at a domestic science college that I decided that catering and cooking were not for me.

After a family meeting about my future, I vaguely remarked that I’d quite like to be a children’s nurse. My father promptly replied that I’d much better do my general training first and then do children’s nursing. Without warning or discussion he told me the next day that I had an appointment with the Matron of the Lewis Hospital, Miss P Campbell. Before I had time to draw breath I was in the uniform of a Nursing Auxiliary in August 1958 with the prospect of starting my training in January 1959.

My first day will remain vividly in my memory forever. I had to report to the Assistant Matron who I could tell was very busy and could see me far enough. In those days there was no pharmacist in the Lewis Hospital so the Assistant Matron did all the dispensing, ordering and making sure the wards had all their supplies. I arrived in the middle of the dispensing day!

She took me upstairs to the changing room and produced the necessary dress called a wrapper, starched apron, belt, cap and muffs. Yes, even the lowly Nursing Auxiliary was kitted out suitably starched! Nobody told me to bring safety pins, studs for collar and hairgrips to keep a cap on.

The poor lady went berserk and berated me on my foolishness (first of many, even on my first day). She went off in search of said pins, grips, studs, etc. and much to my confusion, consternation and anxiety, did not return for two hours. I had lots of thoughts during these two hours. Do I stay? Do I go searching for her? Do I run home? However, common sense prevailed and I sat waiting. She returned and pulled and pushed and tucked me into shape, although I looked a comic sight.

I was taken into the Surgical Ward, probably because it was the first ward she came to, and she handed me over to a Student Nurse to teach me what to do. Thus began my nursing career and on that first afternoon I didn’t think I would return the following day but I retired from nursing in December 2004, 45 years later, after a very fulfilling and varied career as a general nurse. I never did go on to do children’s nursing.

At that time nursing hierarchy was absolute. The nurse three months ahead of you was your boss and told you what to do, what to say and had complete domination over you. If you were lucky you got a senior who was kind and understanding and as I recall most of them were. Staff Nurses and Sisters didn’t really have much input into your education as a Nursing Auxiliary, as you were so low down in the hierarchy that you were invisible.

Medical Ward , Christmas 1959,
left to right, Ishbel Macarthur, Kay Macdonald, Annie Mary ?, Babsie Matheson, Mairi C Morrison, Shan Maciver, Peggie Macleod, Mary Ann Macleod, Katie Ann Morrison, and Peggie Morrison.

We had lots to do every day. Cleaning was our constant work, with lots of soap, water and foul-smelling disinfectant to assist us. The wards were Florence Nightingale wards with beds down both sides and a female and male ward.

Every day the beds down one side of the ward got pulled out into the middle of the ward and behind them was cleaned and damp dusted. The lights, radiators, external pipes, chairs, beds, tables, screens were all washed thoroughly. Everything was then put back in place and the other side of the ward was done the following day. The ward maid did the floor and they washed and polished that horrible old brown linoleum and you were in deep trouble if you trod on her wet floor or newly polished surface.

The sluice was my domain and I took great pride in washing and polishing the stainless steel bed-pans and all the equipment in there. This was my escape, I was safe in here, washing and polishing, no senior nurse or Sister could ask me to do anything that scared me. The rubber sheets and draw sheets had to be washed, dried and powdered and put on wooden rollers. If they were folded, the rubber cracked and this caused problems for the patients who lay on them, i.e. bed sores. All the linen had to be taken out of the linen skips and counted - so many sheets, so many draw sheets, etc. All blood and body fluid stained linen had to be sluiced with cold water before sending to the laundry. We had no latex gloves to protect our hands and so, very often, the skin on our hands was hacked and cracked and believe me were very sore.

And so went my first day, a lot of time cleaning, washing and sluicing but not a lot of time spent with patients. That came later after the apprenticeship of the sluice room. So I went home vowing not to return but I did and funnily enough I cannot remember my second day!

Kay Mackay