Zena was born in Jamaica in 1932, the youngest of ten children.
She writes, “My father decided nursing was not for me. He suggested I go into teaching or dress making. Why?…since the age of 5 years I knew I wanted to be a nurse.
She trained as a midwife in Kingston, Jamaica and practiced as a community midwife there before coming to England in 1956 to pursue her career. She did her general training at Bethnal Green hospital. In 1959 she moved to Queen Mary’s Hospital in Stratford, East London to do her Part 1 Midwifery. She writes:
“I enjoyed my working days in hospital. Many of the student nurses and even some staff nurses could not cope with the strict discipline on and off the wards and for this reason would give up their training or travel back to their home land. I had no problem with discipline, and came into this with one thing in mind, come what may, and that was to pursue a career in nursing. My parents were very strict, so my up bringing was a strict one. Discipline, honesty, time and respect were never allowed to be forgotten not even for one minute.
“Through the years I had several favourite patients with men and women. Some of these patients would refuse to be treated by other nurses because they were heavy handed, but I put myself in their position and treated them as I would want to be treated.
“As students we were taken on day trips to places such as Oxo, Glaxo and the sewage works. I loved the day out, the teas, the little gifts – but not parts of the sewage works!
“All ranks of nursing staff had to be properly dressed at all times when on duty. Well pressed striped blue and white dresses, shining white and well starched aprons and caps, black stockings, black lace up shoes with rubber heels. Hair had to be up off the shoulders and collars, nails clipped short and clean, no jewellery, no wrist watches, starched belts – colour according to the year the student was in. Each grade had its own colour belt. Matron wore green and the sisters were all in blue dresses with long sleeves, and would wear a white frilled, elastic cuffs when they rolled their sleeves up to perform a duty in nursing. If the cap was not folded in a way that it looked like the bakers’ hat, you would be asked to remove it from your head and then the sister would re-fold it. Nurses had to report on and off duty also to the dining room at meal times on the dot of time. Late? Never.
“If you should report being sick, the Nurses Home Sister would check your temperature and if there was no temperature, off to the ward you go. You would not be considered to be as being ill. Some of the girls knew how to beat the sister however, when she was due to visit them these girls would put hot water, tea or food in their mouth, hence the reading of the thermometer would show a high temperature – they were never found out.
“All nurses had to be in by 9.30pm. The porter would lock the gates at this time. If one wanted to come in later than 9.30pm then she would have to ask the matron for a late night pass which allowed one to come in through the gates no later than 10.30pm. The Irish girls had to go dancing every night at the Lyceum and 10.30pm was too early for bed, so they got friendly with the gate porter who would let them in whenever until the night sister caught up with them coming in later than permitted. They were reprimanded by the matron and no more late passes given. So what did these girls do? They managed to cut a hole large enough in the wire fence behind the nurses home and from thence they had a whale of a time going in and out as they pleased.
“Every one had to have a handle on their can (an old West Indian saying). All had to be addressed correctly: Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Sister, Staff Nurse or nurse. Very rarely the night sister would be heard calling a very ill patient by his or her Christian name. The consultants are Mr or Mrs. Junior nurses did not have much to do with the Registrar or consultants. The clerical, domestic and porters all had to be addressed properly…that’s good old fashioned respect.
“In the dining room the staff had their tables mapped out accordingly – Sisters, Staff Nurses, 1st, 2nd and 3rd year. The dining room Sister was a lovely middle aged Scottish lady. Very gentle and kind, she always tried to help, but was firm and strict. We had 2ozs butter weekly each. The order of the day was margarine and beef dripping from the kitchen. Some jam and marmalade was allowed. The food was good.
“Forty four hours per week were worked. I had 1 day off weekly and two weeks’ holiday per year. Each nurse spent 3 months in each of the 3 years training on night duty. Wages were £10 per month for 1st year staff in the 1950’s.
“Gifts to nurses from the patient or a family member had to be sanctioned by the ward sister. Gifts of money were rarely accepted and if they were, then it would be put away and shared among the staff in chocolates or stockings at the end of the year (Christmas). Once a favourite male patient of mine left me his portable television on his death, but I was not allowed to take it – Oh, how I was disappointed, I had to donate the set to the ward. Very few wards had televisions in those days so it was well used and many had the benefit of it and not just me, on my own.
“At night the television had to be switched off by 9.30 – 9.45pm. Well, that’s one rule I never did obey (naughty and mischievous girl). The patients (all men) and myself needed to see the sport, football, boxing and wrestling, especially. I shifted the bed of a patient who was able to nip in and out of bed next to the communicating window ledge on which the television was and when the matron or night sister was heard or seen coming on her round, the television was be switched off and all the patients fast asleep – some would ever be heard snoring. Then no sooner had she gone than they are all awake and on goes the television until they all are ready to go off to sleep – then I would switch it off and put its cover on for the night.
“Nursing and caring for the patient and their families was a serious business. No messing around or cheap talks and laughter around those being cared for were permitted. That did not say we could not have a quick chatter and laugh with patients providing no one was awaiting any attention. We were little devils when the cat was away and there was much good clean fun with the patients who were up to it. They were devilish themselves and on sisters return they, like us, were perfect angels, butter would not melt in their mouths.
“No one was allowed to sit on the beds, not even the patients could sit or lie on top, they had to sit on the chair or be in bed properly. No dirty utensils could be seen hanging about on the bed, lockers or tables. Tablets, or any form of medication, was not allowed to be left on the bed side table if the patient was asleep or out of the ward e.g. at X Ray or physiotherapy. Pillows all had to be neat and tidy, with the mouth of the pillow cases turned away from the door, especially before the visitors came or ward rounds.
“The student nurses did much of the cleaning and dusting. Polishing the floor was done by using a heavy bumper by using a swinging movement – it was heavy – no hover! The ward sister and Matron would run their fingers along the window sills and ledges in search of dust and dirt. If any was found there would be hell to pay!
“Although the coal fires were always burning there was never any dust or dirt to be seen. The nurses even had to clean the windows in the sterilizing room. I never did see window cleaning in my nursing role, but I did it as I was told. On weekends and Bank Holidays the student nurses spent much time in cleaning the wheels of the bed. All fluff had to be removed using tweezers. The bed tables and lockers had to be scrubbed in and out.
“There was a four hourly bed pan and bottle round were on every ward to every bed fast patient. No bed pan was allowed during visiting. If you did not use one before the visitors came in, then you would have to wait until they were all gone and the ward closed. If a bottle or bed pan was seen on the bed, locker, floor or chair the nurse responsible would be slated by the sister.
“Some of the patients in the general hospital, especially those on the medical and grannies’ wards, were very prejudiced towards the black nurses. Some of these were even retired teachers yet they did not know better. I can remember being asked …why did I have to come here to do nursing? I said, because we do not have nurses and doctors and when someone gets ill, we have to wait for medical and nursing help from England. (I now think I was very mean with my reply).
“At visiting times the patients who did not have visitors had to the made to feel wanted. The student nurses would sit with the patient and talk to them until all the visitors went. Our patients in those days did not have and depend on volunteers to wash, feed or visit them. The nurses had that in their daily duties. That is what we called nursing.
“Our concern was not only to the patients but also with their loved ones, their families. Our patients were also number one in our lives, whether they were racist, uncouth or not. They had to be treated with respect and their dignity would not be taken from them. There were no mixed wards. Ladies were in their wards and men in theirs…