“Can you do a night shift Polly?” Matron sounded fraught.
“Sure. When?” I asked.
“Tonight started 30 minutes ago!”
“It’s desperate. Three staff rang in sick.”
Me, Polly Put Upon; muggins par excellence, kissed goodbye to my dream of a delicious soak in the tub, followed by sleep; precious, Rip Van Winkle style, longed for sleep. I climbed back into my uniform and called a cab.
Oak Leigh Hall was an old fever hospital, purpose built in the middle 1800’s before the dawn of antibiotics. In the late 60’s, the few remaining wards were designated to treat tuberculosis. Being a newly qualified staff nurse, I secretly felt rather lofty. They called me to hold the fort, so to speak. I raised myself up to my full 4 feet 11 inches. Florence Nightingale, eat your heart out.
“Who’s with me?” I asked at hand over.
“Helen Banks,” said Sister. “She’s good. You’ll be okay. Mind if I leave before the buses stop running?” Is this legal? I thought, leaving one staff member, but hey, I’m one of the elite now. I can’t ask dumb questions.
The phone rang: “Helen Banks--I’m so sorry, but I’ve come down with a wicked tummy bug…”
OK, I thought, scanning the 25 patients. I can do this alone… I think. Wait, this IS illegal! How do I report the dilemma? The staffing situation was dire; the hospital running on skeleton staff. I flung a frenzied prayer upstairs.
Rolling up the proverbial sleeves, I formulated a strategy. Supper drinks first; check IV’s; do medication and four hourly TPR’s. Oh, and check and record the contents of the sputum cartons. TB patients spit a lot.
I set to work; drinks, drips, drugs and spit pots: “NURSE.” An urgent yell saw me dump the Horlicks jug and hare down the ward. “I need a Jimmy Riddle.” Duh! I tugged off my white kitchen apron and pulled on a blue sluice one. Handing him the glass receptacle, I waited outside the curtain… and waited some more.
“Finished?” I called, at length. “ARE YOU DONE?” I hollered. “No sweat,” I muttered, ripping off blue apron and donning white one.
I was 45 minutes late when I pushed out the drinks trolley, so the sound of a urinal shattering on the tiles, delighted me.
Off with the white, on with the blue; locate mop and bucket down sluice area; return it--wrong colour. Paddle through copious quantities of bladder contents; drinks going cold--and I’d only been here one hour. How was I going to get through the night?
“Here, give me the mop.” The voice came from behind. A fresh faced young woman, smiling confidently took it from me.
“Are you a ghost?” I joked, supposing she was a patient. “Aren’t you supposed to be on bed-rest, like the others?”
“I’m neither ghost nor patient,” she laughed. “I’m the helper. I’ll do the drinks next.” I could have kissed her!
With the lights dimmed, at 2am precisely, I flopped into a chair at the nursing station. Patients down and out, me half dead, and the helper--I hadn’t even asked her name: “You get your feet up now,” I whispered, “and I’ll make us a drink.”
I turned around. Nipped to the loo, I thought. I found some biscuits and returned with two mugs of steaming hot chocolate. I drank mine and hers before deciding she’d been abducted by aliens. Gingerly, I opened the door to the staff room and peeped inside; no vital signs. I crept stealthily the length of the ward, praying I wouldn’t be buttonholed by a bedpan obsessive. No joy. She was gone.
This is an isolated specialist hospital with a current and chaotic staffing crisis, I reasoned. Why would I expect to keep her to myself? But then, she could have told me she was due to help out the other wards. I felt a tad nettled; bit of a strop coming on, until I got a poke in the ribs from on high. Be grateful!
I was ladling treacle into two vats of porridge when the day shift arrived. They were suitably impressed: “Runs a shift single handled and gets the breakfast started.” Now I know pride goes before a fall, so I had to fess up.
“Hum… I had the helper.”
“Good worker. Nice woman. Didn’t catch her name.” Silence…
“Night’s not suiting you love?”
“What? You don’t believe… I couldn’t possibly... someone must have…
Lord. You didn’t! Did you?”
*IV - Intravenous.
*TPR - Temperature, pulse and respiration.
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