Nursing Winnie

2008-07-10 00:00

Mention the name “Winnie” and many South Africans think of Nelson Mandela’s second wife. However, world history attests to another famous Winnie, whom a local resident remembers well.

Jeanie Cockerill (85) of Howick was born in Ireland during “the troubles” and sent over to England to be brought up by her English grandparents. She went to Harrogate Ladies’ College in Yorkshire and completed her schooling in 1938. She wanted to study nursing, but her mother was “dead against it. And anyway,” she recalls, “they wouldn’t take me because I was too young.”

Then World War 2 broke out and Cockerill’s fortunes changed. “They were desperate to recruit nurses, so I was accepted to train at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. In six weeks we learnt the basics of nursing care, including how to give injections and enemas, which we did on a rubber doll called Mrs Mackintosh. I managed to pass the examination at the end of the training period and started work in the hospital on the banks of the Thames opposite the Houses of Parliament. I thought I would never sleep at night because the trams’ turning point was outside the hospital and Big Ben chimed every quarter of an hour. However, after just one week I heard nothing and slept soundly.

It was hard work and as probationers we did everything: dusting and cleaning wards, making beds and emptying and cleaning bed pans. We had no rubber gloves in those days and our hands were sore, red and cracked from the cleaning liquid, Lysol. All the equipment and theatre instruments had to be sterilised as there was nothing like the pre-packed, sterile throw-away instruments you get today.

“Much of the hospital was bombed by the Germans in 1941-42 and if you stood on the balcony during a bombing raid the planes were so close you could see the pilots’ heads. We weren’t supposed to do that of course and I got into awful trouble when I did. After the superstructure was bombed, they whitewashed the basement which ran the full length of the buildings and we moved everything in there. They even set up four operating theatres, which worked day and night. It was difficult working in theatre when the bombs were falling because everything shook so badly. They usually conducted bombing raids at night so we used to swop our frilly nurses’ caps for tin hats when we were on night duty. Luckily, the nurses’ home, Riddle House, was not hit, so at least we could go there when we were off duty. But when the air raid sirens sounded some of us had to go back on duty to be ready to deal with the casualties.”

Cockerill recalls how, one morning, the ward sister told her to clear out a cupboard and put a bed and a bedside table into it. She explained that Nurse Cockerill was to have special responsibility for the patient who was to occupy the bed. Cockerill continues: “Who should walk through the door but Winston Churchill — he hadn’t been knighted so wasn’t yet a ‘Sir’. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder who’s running the country?’ He was admitted because he had insomnia and his poor wife, Clementine, just couldn’t stand it. He would wake her up in the middle of the night and ask her to phone one of his colleagues. He’d be up working at 2 am. We gave him drugs to sleep but they didn’t work very well — nothing worked.

Clementine visited him every day. We used to hear her say ‘Oh Winnie, don’t do that!’ but of course, what Winnie wanted Winnie got and that was that! He was marvellous and he had the same repartee with us that he had in the House of Commons.”

Outside Churchill’s room was a small wooden bench, where the three chiefs of staff or heads of the armed forces would sit, in full uniform, and wait to see him because there wasn’t enough room for all of them in Churchill’s cupboard bedroom. “They were Admiral Cunningham, chief of the navy, Lord Portal of the air force and the army’s field marshal Lord Alanbrooke. Churchill had a booming voice that carried up and down the basement, and one morning he told me to choose which chief should see him first. I was so flustered and embarrassed. I chose Admiral Cunningham as the navy was the senior service.

“One day the sister told me that the matron wanted to see me, ‘Oh dear, trouble again!’ I thought. I could tell the matron was cross because there were pink spots on her cheeks. She said ‘Please tell Mr Churchill to refrain from burning the sheets with his cigars. And Nurse, kindly remind him that there’s a war on!’

“When I got back to my area, Mr Churchill wanted to know what had happened with the matron. When I told him, he laughed so much I thought he would fall out of bed.

“He left after two weeks and as they departed, Mrs Churchill turned to me and said ‘Nurse, what am I going to do with him?’ I didn’t see the ward sister standing behind me so you can imagine her response when I replied: ‘What about a general anaesthetic?’ ”

“I stayed throughout the war and passed my final exams in 1946, becoming a qualified sister or Nightingale Nurse [see box]. I married and later went out to India, but that is a story for another day,” Cockerill says, impishly.

The Nightingales

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, opened the Nightingale Training School and Home for Nurses at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1860. Nursing sisters who trained there were called Nightingales. They received a badge introduced by Dame Alicia Lloyd Still in 1925. Its design is taken from the eight-pointed cross of the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. Blue was the colour of the ribbon of the Order of Merit that Nightingale was awarded in 1907. The Tudor rose, fleur-de-lis and the shield with the sword of St Paul are from the hospital’s coat of arms. The centrepiece is the head of Nightingale in relief, with the words, Schola Sancti Thomae. According to Jeanie Cockerill, these sisters could get a job anywhere in the world as their training was known to be excellent. “Sadly, after the war St Thomas’ and King’s College Hospital were amalgamated and the Nightingale School no longer exists, so the precious badge cannot be awarded,” she said. — htm

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