Working in the early days of the NHS

Adobe Spark‘It was to be a big wide world but I wanted to be part of that.’ Ethel Armstrong was 18 when health secretary Aneurin Bevan launched the NHS on July 5 1948. Now 87, Ethel went on to enjoy an illustrious career within the health service. Spanning over four decades, she worked across the country in various roles, mainly in radiodiagnosis and in nursing. After retiring in 1989/90, she has continued to support the NHS through two charities, the NHS Retirement Fellowship (nhsrf.org.uk/) and Cavell Nurses’ Trust (www.cavellnursestrust.org/), making it a remarkable 70 years of unbroken service. They would love to hear from retirees from any disciplines who are now retired or coming up to retirement.

Born in Durham, Ethel began her career as a cadet. The cadet scheme was aimed at 17 year olds who didn’t know what area of the health service they wanted to get into. It offered them the chance to work in different fields before choosing a career path. She was encouraged to join by her headmaster, who told her about a ‘new scheme coming, with brand new free care for everybody from cradle to the grave.’ Feeling she had the requirements necessary for the role, he put her name forward for the scheme.

Ethel had wanted to become a doctor or dentist, but, like many in the years following the Second World War, was not in a position to pay to study for a qualification. ‘They didn’t have grants in those days,’ she says. ‘If your parents couldn’t afford to send you to university then I’m afraid you had to do it the hard way.’

Before the NHS

In the days before the NHS, healthcare provision in the UK was notably different. ‘It was a different ball game altogether; your doctor did absolutely everything,’ says Ethel. ‘The doctor’s man came round and he collected 4p for a husband and wife, and a penny for each child, so that they were put on that GP’s books.’

One of the differences Ethel recalls was the cost for the delivery of a child, which she says was one shilling and sixpence. This meant that, for those lucky few who were born on July 5 1948, their parents were saved the fee. ‘If they were born a day earlier their mothers would have had to pay one and six, but because [there was now an] NHS they got it free,’ she says.

The early years

Ethel’s first step into health care was at a large mental health hospital in Newcastle in 1947, where she worked on rotation in a number of departments. When the NHS was launched in 1948 she began studying radiodiagnosis at the city’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, which ‘wasn’t as posh as it is now’.

‘The corridors had black and white tiles, there were wooden forms all the way along and patients brought their sandwiches,’ she says. ‘You were there for half a day and you saw a medical man or you saw a surgeon.’

Qualifying in 1951, she emphasises how, in the early days of the NHS, there was a strict adherence to appearance and discipline.

‘You were taught protocol, code of conduct and dress code, and that was important,’ she says. ‘You knew who you could speak to and how you could speak to them. And that now seems to be sometimes lacking.

‘[It] made your day if the consultant stopped and said “good morning”. But most times, you were taught from a very early age that if a consultant was coming up the corridor you waited, and if there was a door to open, you opened the door. That was the discipline in 1948,’ she adds.

An evolving health service

Ethel entered the world of nursing and midwifery several years after beginning her career, but ended up returning to radiodiagnostics, her preferred area of health care. Throughout her time in the NHS she saw considerable change and advancements in technology.

‘I’ve seen more changes than you can shake a stick at,’ she says. ‘The important ones are the ones that improve lives—the other ones you just forget about, but advances in maternity services and knee replacements, hip replacements, have been tremendous.’

Next year the NHS will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Since its inception it has continued to grow. It now employs more than 1.5 million people and treats over 1 million patients in England every 36  hours. However, an ageing population has meant it is finding it increasingly difficult to meet patient demand, and many have called it unsustainable. For Ethel, though, there will always be an NHS.

‘The NHS will definitely still be here in 70 years,’ she says. ‘It will be a different format. I think you’ll be given a do-it-yourself box, everybody will have to go on a computer course, you will all have to know how to access this, that and the other. It will be, I’m quite sure, a high-tech world.

‘I connect with nurses and midwives, as well other NHS workers. My passion and commitment since retirement in 1990 is continuous, totalling a staggering 70 years. I have been overwhelmed by requests for media coverage and I have been asked if I will do it all again next year. My answer is an emphatic YES as I support every one of the workforce past and present.’

Taken from British Journal of Nursing, published October 2017.

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