Happy Birthday NHS — how I survived as a student nurse in the 70s.

I began my training as a nurse in Edinburgh in 1979. I was a shy, scatty, and anxious teenager, born and raised in rural Scotland, with no experience of city life, no money, and absolutely no idea what I was doing. I arrived with a suitcase and a week’s bed in the YWCA booked and paid for me by my mother. Beyond that, I was lost.

In those days there was no such thing as a degree in nursing. We got paid to train on the job over three and a half years. I remember my first wage slip was for a hundred and ten pounds. Nursing colleges were attached to each teaching hospital and you went there for three months’ formal classroom learning, followed by three months’ clinical placement in a ward, and so on for the three years of the course. Your final placement followed your final exams, and lasted for six months, in your chosen area.

From the YWCA I moved to a room in a large, filthy flat, one of many run at that time by a slum landlord. It cost two pounds fifty a week, and you shared the bathroom and kitchen with various others. He threw in a bag of Weetaflakes and called it a bed and breakfast. Across the street was a record shop where I tried, unsuccessfully, to sell my LP collection to get money for food.

I struggled to attend college and when I arrived my clothes were dirty as there was no hot water in the flat and I had no money to go to the laundrette. I didn’t know the buses or my way around the city, and was surviving on noodles made with boiling water from the kettle.

I had an aunt in the city and two friends, and I lied to them about how things were. Ashamed to admit that I was lonely, frightened, hungry, and not coping, I said that everything was fine and I was having a great time, too busy to see anyone.

I broke down at college one lunchtime. The other students were heading off to the hospital canteen for lunch, and as I had no money I stayed behind. One of the tutors asked me why, and I started to cry. There wasn’t much they could do. Nevertheless, the basics were there. I had a place on a course at one of the best nursing colleges in the country and I was getting paid to do it. All I had to do, was hang on in there till pay day, and I did.

At the end of each clinical placement, you got an assessment from the ward charge nurse. My first placement was a disaster. I was late, I was slow, I was unkempt, I was too shy to engage with people so appeared sullen. My second went tolerably well. I can still remember how amazed I felt when the charge nurse informed me that I was ‘approachable and pleasant’. The most basic of starting points, yet to me, with self-esteem well below zero, it meant so much.

Soon after, I managed to get a place in the nurses’ home. It was warm, cheap, and clean, with cooking and washing facilities. The rent got taken straight off your pay and you didn’t have to worry about extra bills because it was all included. I got to know the bus system and because I got paid every month I survived financially and quickly moved out of the nurses’ home into a clean bedsit in a pleasant area with a decent landlord. It cost sixteen pounds a month, electricity included, and there was a meter for the gas and a pay phone in the hall. I began to thrive. I got to know my way around the city, hopped on and off buses, developed a good social life, my confidence grew, I did well in my placements and I passed my exams. After three and a half years, I was a registered nurse, and I was proud of myself.

Some years later I went on to do a post-graduate diploma in psychotherapy and practised as a counsellor in primary care. I like to think I was good at my job. My sympathy was always with young people who were struggling to find their feet. I remembered the kindness of the nursing tutors who despite my dirty clothes and my lateness and my apparent slovenliness, gave me the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to grow and change.

I wonder how nursing students fare nowadays. The way I trained is regarded as inferior now, I think. The university degree course is the way to go. In any case, the old NHS hospital colleges have gone and the nurses’ homes have closed. There’s no going back. The state has shrunk, and in many respects society has shrunk along with it. Probably people like me, the way I was, low in self esteem, no money, needing a job and a roof over my head, don’t think of becoming qualified nurses. They can’t afford to. They probably get jobs as care assistants, working twelve hour shifts for private, run-for-profit health care companies, and they stay there because they need the pittance they are paid. Society seems a lot less forgiving these days with far fewer, if any, chances for recovery for those who err and struggle, and we’re undoubtedly poorer for it. When I look back on my nursing days, the creepiness of the YWCA, the vileness of the slum flat, and finally, living in my nice clean bedsit, I picture at the same time a scene from Ken Loach’s film Riff Raff. It’s the one with the cheese plant sticking out of the car. I had a cheese plant, in my bedsit, of which I was extremely proud, and that scene encapsulates my life, as it was for a couple of years back then at any rate. I relied entirely on the kindness of strangers, as someone once said, and sometimes, I found it.