Shut the door…in case the germs get out

Maggie J McDonald

East Lothian Courier article, November 2, 1990

Sister Maggie Jane McDonald was a nurse at Roodlands Hospital for 28 years. She shared the joy and spirit, and pathos, of thousands of patients, and here writes a unique account of some of her experiences. Sister McDonald retired in 1975.

I arrived in Haddington in May 1947 to the then County Fever Hospital to find one ward, ‘The Cubicles’, open where there were two adult patients and eight children (now the Out-Patients Department), each nursed in separate rooms, each having different illnesses.

It was called Barrier Nursing, which meant every time you entered the small room you had to wear a gown and mask, then remove them and wash your hands when you finished and moved on to the next room. The illnesses were tuberculosis, meningitis, poliomyelitis, scarlet fever, mumps and chicken pox.

With the introduction of immunisation, the fever illnesses were fading out. Thankfully diphtheria was more or less wiped out. If the children were poorly, the home doctor arranged for hospital admissions, mostly to relieve the harassed mothers, who had others at home to care for. Ringing in my ears were the words ‘Keep the door shut where the chicken pox patient is – in case the germs get out’! It was highly contagious and it was unforgivable if you had caused cross infection. With my simple mind I used to wonder about the germs from the others!

The Medical Officer of Health’s Headquarters were in the County Buildings and he was the Chief. Any infection in the area or in the schools had to be reported to him and he set the wheels in motion to prevent an epidemic arising – food poisoning, typhoid, smallpox, etc.

The Fever Hospital was in the pipeline for closure and, of course, the introduction of the National Health Service made changes happen. In 1948 the General Hospital was christened Roodlands Hospital. Many years ago there was an estate on the grounds (found on old maps) A new Hospital Superintendent was appointed and a Secretary. They had enormous power, it appeared! They covered a group of hospitals. The local General Practitioners sent in and attended their own patients, and Wards 5 and 3 were refurbished and opened.

Tonsillectomy operations for children were performed on the kitchen table in Ward 5, as many as 8 to 10 weekly. An operating theatre was built within the outpatients’ building and Surgical Wards 1 and 2 were opened. This theatre was used for many years. A Consultant Surgeon and Physician were appointed. House Doctors, telephonists and porters were now required and the General Practitioners were faded out. The X-Ray Department was crammed into the same building as the Physiotherapy Department and somehow they coped until the pressure of work made it impossible, and a new modern equipped X-ray Department was built beside the Outpatients Department. The Out-Patients Department was opened for casualties and clinics and the Red Cross opened a canteen, which was much appreciated by the far travelled patients. The Red Cross exchanged pictures on the walls and started the trolley library and the WRVS started the sweetie trolley.

Years later, when money was available, a modern theatre was built at the end of the Surgical ward. Routine surgery theatre lists and emergencies of all kinds were treated. Being so near to the A1 road, many horrendous accident cases were admitted – many during the night.

For years now, the Post Graduate Doctors took their final exams in the Surgical wards. This was introduced by the late Mr McLean Ross – ‘so varied was the material’, by which he meant the choice of patients, to test these young forthcoming Surgeon Consultants of the future.

There was a very busy Medical ward, where there was to be found excellent teaching material for the Doctors and very good practical bedside nursing for the young Pupil Nurses. The patients were admitted from a wide area, Eyemouth, Cranshaws, Gifford, around to Musselburgh and all along the seaside. Shepherds from the hills, gardeners from the estates, farm workers, miners, fishermen, teachers, ministers, etc. etc. Whatever social status they held outside, they were all equal, levelled, once their heads lay on a hospital pillow. Many a story was told and each learned something from ‘him in the next bed’.

The fishermen got restless if they were in a long time. One of the old fishermen, looking out at the B… hills, said: ‘Can they no be shifted. I canna tell what the weather is to be when I canna see the sea, and the clouds are no the same.’ The shepherd who saw his temperature chart thought we were mapping out the hills he had climbed with his sheep.

The ministers and monks enjoyed the stories and, of course, did not tell who they were. The shocked amazement, when they got dressed to go home wearing their dog collars! They took a great interest in each other’s illnesses and made comparisons on progress.

Your mother gives you life and is there in spirit at the end. I have witnessed so many times the Heavenly smile. For some days before an elderly male or female patient dies, they start having conversations with their mother, as if she is sitting on the bedside chair. The first time I saw a little old lady reach up her hand and in a clear voice say: ‘Yes, mother, I’m coming.’ The expression on her face – a most beautiful smile – had to be seen to be believed, as the last breath expired and the colour drained from her face. As I stood at the bedside, a cold shiver passed through my body. I was rooted to the spot. Mother was there in spirit to comfort and guide her into the spiritual world. Many times I have seen a hand, or both, sometimes, reach up, and whisper something and the smile cross their faces just at the end. I wonder what they see at the moment life expires.

The Matron was in complete charge of everybody and every department within the gates. An immaculate figure in a tailored dress and lacy cap and lace collar and cuffs to match. She ordered the coal for the boiler, screw nails for the carpenter, washers for the plumber, and paint for the outside contract painters. She discussed the menus and special diets with the cook and visited the laundry staff. She employed staff and programmed holidays and rotas for staff throughout the hospital. She had a tremendous amount of paperwork and no secretary to help her. Roodlands was approved by the Royal College of Nursing and was the first training school in Scotland to open for Enrolled Nurses. A Sister Tutor was engaged and school commenced at Alderston House. Married women were engaged and did their training and part-time married nurses were employed.

I give a word of credit and thanks to the laundry staff. The laundry was ironed to perfection – not a crease in the sheets. The noise and speed they had to work and burning their fingers on the hot rollers as the sheets passed through so quickly and roller ironing of the Doctors’ coats, etc, and standing on a stone floor (most of the laundry goes to Edinburgh now).

Every day the green theatre laundry had to be done and be returned for sterilizing. Packs had always to be ready for an emergency. Our cuffs, collars and belts were starched and polished and caps goffered ironed to make frilly edges. Our aprons were starched and crackled as we walked up the ward. Who can remember waking up from a doped sleep or an anaesthetic, listening to a strange noise – swish and crackle – in the silence of the night? It was the taffeta petticoats under the starched aprons! The torn linen was laid aside in the mending basket and sent to the sewing room.

The menus were made out weekly with the cook. We had excellent food. Fancy cakes and scones daily for everybody at teatime. We used to love when there had been a shoot on. We enjoyed hare, hare soup, pheasant or grouse and whatever else was donated. It was cooked to perfection. Waitress service in the dining room. Damask tablecloths and serviettes. A glass of milk if you wished and lashings of cream (single or whipped) with the puddings and bowls of fruit, help yourself from the sideboard. We were thoroughly spoilt. I do not recall there was any mention of paying for board. Our salary was then £120 per year.

Changes came and meals had to be paid for as eaten. Self-service began and queues at the hatch. Afterwards machines were installed. Pay in money and out pops drinks and meals as selected. Finally the kitchen closed altogether. I am puzzled – how do the doctors get meals now, especially at the weekend?

With the introduction of the Salmon Report in the mid 1960s, Matron was phased out and replaced by Nursing Officers graded 7-10. The humble Ward Sister was No. 7. The higher the number, the more remote they became from the patient. Each department had Superintendents, Assistant Superintendents and Secretaries, Catering Officers, etc. In each department were two Domestic Staff, thoroughly hard working, loyal women, who took a great pride in their individual departments. Every place was spotless, brass knobs shining everywhere.

The gardener, the late Mr Paxton, was a great character. He was a busy man. The hospital was almost self-sufficient with vegetables and he kept the lawns and rose beds beautifully. He addressed everyone as ‘Hae, ma lassie’. A rap on the ward kitchen window and there he was, cap in hand and the other hand up at his brow in a sort of salute. ‘Hae, ma lassie, ye’ll need to put a stop to this,’ pointing to a tattie shaw (the flower and greenery on the top of potatoes), withering in the sunshine, and no foot prints to be seen. ‘I’m missing one onion and two or three carrots.’ The vacant spaces showed up on his rows of soldier-like drills. Fine he knew the night staff had surreptitiously dug them up by moonlight or the ward lights, using a pudding spoon as there was nothing else to be had. They had enjoyed them with their meal. They ate in the ward kitchen during the night. He knew well who had taken them, but he never reported the lassies to ‘She hersel’ – that was what he called the Matron.

He came to see me one day sorely puzzled, finding foot prints in the snow round the back of the Nurses’ Home, leading over the fence into the field and stopping at a window in the corridor. Another secret kept from ‘She hersel’! The Nurses’ Home by this time was full up with young nurses in training. The overflow and night nurses were staying up at Alderston House, it now being the Nurses’ School. Matron felt responsible for the young girls away from home and strict rules had to be adhered to regarding times to be in at night – 10 to 10.30 pm, special pass 12 midnight. She had to know where they were going. ‘The pictures’ was, of course, the only entertainment down the street. The films changed three times weekly. Many times she was told ‘The newsreel was extra long tonight and the picture house came out later.’ That was OK, as long as they all came in at the same time! The boy friends would escort the girls up to the gate, leaning on the bicycles (no cars then) and they would watch the Night Sister’s torch coming towards the door of the Nurses’ Home. At the last moment there was a rush to get in before the key was turned. No doubt the latecomers were hoisted up and pushed in the back window. Hence the answer to the foot prints in the snow!!!

When I think now of sleeping in that Home, locked in from the outside and with no thought of fire escapes in those days. Time passed pleasantly in the Nurses’ Home. We had social evenings, made concerts to entertain the patients, whist drives and dances in the dining room. An Annual Ball was held in the Town House. Long evening dresses were worn and men in bow ties and evening suits. Those were the days.

I must mention there were two Ambulance Drivers. They did all the transport, night and day. Unsocial hours were never heard of! Nor paid for! I loved to hear the stories from the late Bob Colquhoun of days long ago. His dad was an ambulance driver in the days of the horse drawn ambulances. It took one whole day to bring two children from North Berwick. He carried warm milk in bottles wrapped in woollie socks and towels to give the children a drink on the road and hot water bottles were filled by his mother before they set off; and always a bag of oats for the horse. When Bob was sent to collect fever children, he was not always given their names. He used to flash a torch in a dark and dimly lit bedroom up some of the closes and picked two of the children with the reddest faces. They had Scarlet Fever. There would be five or six in a bed, lying top to toe! The late George Black had many stories too. So many times he got stuck in the snow, always in the middle of the night, away in the country and usually maternity patients. The Vert Hospital was a very busy hospital then.

Where Findlay Guy has his lorries now, in the field to the left of the hospital gate, there stood 13 traction engines (old steam engines with chimneys) belonging to Mr Wyllie. When I was on night duty (Fever Hospital days), I used to look out and see the traction engines belching smoke and chugging up the hill towards Haldane Avenue, followed by the threshing mill, coal box, water carrier, baler and the (wee hoosie) caravan where the two men slept. There was the engine driver and the mill man. It was a great sight to see, as they made their way to the farms for the threshing; alas, no longer to be seen with the modern combine harvesters etc. nowadays (they moved so slowly!). It was a great sight to see a well-stocked stackyard, each stack perfect in shape and well headed – only now to be seen in old photographs.

I was privileged to nurse many of these workmen. Fine characters they were and full of stories now lost to society. Who was the young engineer who plastered the fence posts beside the hospital gate with thick engine grease, causing mayhem with the best clothes of anyone who lent against them in the dark? No lights then! There were no houses in Davidson Terrace. In the early mornings could be seen a dozen or so women wearing ugleys and brats, planting vegetables and later in the year on their knees weeding. Now all that is done by machinery. Later houses were built and the factory was built and then came the end of the railway station. The train drivers used to blow their whistles and wave to the children and young patients. Stories and drawings, love and kisses on scraps of paper were blown in the wind to the drivers. Such happy memories.

I feel privileged to have witnessed the beginning of Roodlands General Hospital and to have assisted with the teaching of young nurses, sharing with the examination results, and to have shared sorrow with all those who lost loved ones. The volume of work done in a small hospital is not generally known. They tend to be overshadowed by the larger city hospitals. I give thanks to my colleagues who shared the workload, appreciated the discipline, and knew the meaning of job satisfaction. It is with a great sadness and a tear on my cheek I read in the paper that the gates of Roodlands as a General Hospital are closing.