Camaraderie the best medicine for nurses training at the Royal during the Troubles
At the height of the Troubles, new nurses in Belfast were thrown in at the deep end of frontline medical care. Ahead of a reunion of the class of 72 midwife Hazel McCalister tells Gail Bell that, while times were tough, some light relief was had and strong bonds built
AS WELL as harrowing memories, recollections of the camaraderie that sustained front-line medical staff during one of the most violent periods of the Troubles will be no doubt be swapped by the nursing class of '72 when they meet for what promises to be a memorable reunion this autumn.
Plans are in place for the get-together at Newcastle's Slieve Donard Hotel in October and organisers have put out a call for nurses who started their training at the Royal Victoria Hospital in January 1972 to get in touch and register their place.
Sprinkling sugar on steps – an audible early alert that the ward sister was on her way – and the hasty hiding of cups of tea are lighter snapshots of the era that spring fondly to mind for midwife Hazel McCalister (nee Humphries), organiser of previous reunions.
Hazel says that this time around nurses are coming from England, France and the Netherlands – possibly even the United States and Australia; the gathering will mark 46 years since they first donned their stiff new uniforms and embarked on their noble, new career.
"There were 53 in our intake – more than 150 young trainee nurses altogether that year – and we are hoping as many as possible will come to the reunion," Hazel says.
"1972 was one of the worst years of the Troubles and there are many sad memories from our early days on the wards at the Royal, but there were also many laughs and a great sense of camaraderie which sustained us.
"Most of us left school as teenagers and went straight to the school of nursing and, without any mental preparation, we were suddenly dealing with horrific injuries and death from bombs and bullets on a daily basis.
"There was no debriefing in those days and no counselling, but we would meet up in someone's room after a shift to chat things through and comfort each other over a cup of coffee."
Despite the horror of those times, Hazel, who helped organise the recent Midwives 100 celebration in Belfast Cathedral, says she and her nursing colleagues hold on to many joyful memories, even while training in austere times and with a strict practical regime compared to the academic focus set out for young student nurses today.
"I remember one of the first things I had to learn was how to make a bed properly and perfecting the envelope corners," Hazel recalls. "Everything had to be done meticulously and the opening end of a pillowcase had always to face away from the end of the ward.
"Every detail was scrutinised and there was a certain etiquette expected on the wards. You weren't allowed, for instance, to use first names and we had to wear and make our own little butterfly hats from stiff, white linen."
Hazel, now a grandmother and still working at the Ulster Hospital – she will soon have notched up 40 years between nursing at the former maternity unit at Newtownards and the Ulster – recalls the trepidation of a sister's report and how torches would be regularly used by senior staff to check that everyone was in bed at the right time.
"We had one late pass in a fortnight and an 11pm curfew meant there were a few stories of nurses climbing in through windows after the permitted time," she says.
"We were all a bit scared of the sister and we would put sugar on the steps so we would hear her coming and, if we were having a cup of tea, the cups would quickly be dispatched into the nearest drawer. There was a lot of discipline, but also high standards and old-fashioned good craic."
In an era when patients generally spent longer periods in hospital than they do today, there was also ample opportunity to get to know patients and also their families who would come to visit.
"One of the best things about nursing in those years was the way nurses would be able build relationships with their patients, who were often in wards for weeks and even months at a time," Hazel adds. "I particularly remember one young man who was only in his 30s and had gone through a life-saving bowel operation which was quite new in the operating theatres in Belfast in the 70s.
"It was touch-and-go whether he would survive or not and I remember special permission was granted for his two year-old to visit him on the ward.
"It was a very emotional time for me as a young nurse in the surgical ward, but thankfully he recovered to full health and I am still in touch with him and his family today. Those are the happy ending stories that stand out, as well as the tragic ones.
"But the greatest lesson we learned was that everyone is the same when they are lying in a hospital bed. There were republicans in a bed beside loyalists, beside policemen and beside soliders. No matter who it is, all the tears are the same in the end."
:: Nurses who would like to attend the reunion on Wednesday October 3 should contact Hazel via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or co-organiser Stephanie Bell at email@example.com