Christmas memories of a student nurse

Christmas is a time to be with those you love. So spare a thought for the hard-working people of the UK’s frontline services for whom Christmas is just another day.

In this article, Sarah Price reminiscences on Christmas festivities at her training hospital in the early ’80s. How things have changed!

7a329317abe9633ff0f1ddad929f8181I started my nursing career in February 1981 at the Middlesex Hospital in London W1. In those days, student nurses were not supernumerary and were key to the workforce. So, to be off on Christmas day would be a real bonus. Sadly, I managed to work late/early on every one during my training (and nights on 2 New Years but we won’t go there)


Christmas in hospital was a strange affair. We discharged as many patients as possible and some wards closed. So those unlucky enough to remain were not only very sick and requiring a lot of care, but they may also have been moved to a different ward.

Every ward had its own real tree, which the porters’ delivered in the preceding days. The ward domestics (or maids as they were called at the Middlesex) hated clearing up pine needles and always complained loudly. We made decorations from the usual array of medical equipment. On one occasion, I was asked to make a chain of sputum pot lids to ‘brighten the ward’!!

22842112713 4376f3637a BWe turned our capes inside out to show the red and would join the Salvation Army Band in the Quad to sing carols. We tried to add festive cheer to our caps by putting tinsel around them, although one very grumpy Senior Nursing Officer chastised us for doing so. ‘Its hardly professional nurse’ were her words!


Sister always made sure each patient had a gift to open on Christmas morning. Usually, it was a flannel, some soap and talcum powder and I can still smell those gifts even now!

And then, of course, there was the great ceremony of carving the turkey.

Traditionally, this dubious honour was given to the Consultant, presumably to make him look like a normal person. He (because they were mainly men in those days) would arrive on the ward with his wife and children to spread festive cheer at noon. It was something of a chore for everyone. We would race around washing patients and making sure the ward was tidy. Staff Nurse would chivvy us to complete dressings and clinical care in double quick time and there was an air of calm on the ward by the time the great man hove into view.

Of course, it never quite worked that way. Someone always needed a commode at an inopportune moment. And inevitably, there was always someone saying the immortal words ‘nurse I feel sick’ just as he set foot on the ward. The Consultants wife would smile at Sister through gritted teeth as she went through the annual torture and the children would be bored.

37879454 116335155961133 6138544160556187648 OThe Consultant would don his pinny (and possibly his chef’s hat) and set to with the carving knife. The House Officer always made a joke about his bosses surgical skills and everyone laughed politely. After he’d carved the bird, the Consultant beat a hasty retreat crying Merry Christmas as he gathered his family and hurried off. Duty done for another year.

I was dreading my first Christmas away from home. Not for me the home-cooked lunch or snoozing in front of the TV watching ‘The Great Escape’ as we digested mountains of Christmas pudding.

My friend Sara and I tried to make it as festive as possible. We planned and prepared a small feast for ourselves and close roommates in the nurses home before going on duty. We did have turkey, albeit small and tasteless. My mother even made us a small Christmas pudding. But there was no wine. We were on duty at 12.45.

We arrived on the ward after the Turkey cutting, to the smell of overcooked vegetables and normal hospital aromas. The great and good had disappeared and the morning staff were keen to get off duty after an exhausting shift.  Staff Nurse was very grumpy as she sat down to give report, and we soon found out why.

The ward was one specialising in complex pancreatic and bowel surgery. She tersely explained that  ITU had discharged 5 critically ill patients to us on Christmas morning. These patients were apparently well enough to be on the ward, but still needed masses of intricate care. Staff Nurse took a dim view of this ITU skulduggery and consequently wanted to make everyone’s lives miserable. Describing care and obs needs in great detail she seemed to take great pleasure in our increasing looks of horror.  I’m convinced the late duty staff nurse blanched at the number of IV drugs and pain relief she would be administering.

It was going to be a heavy shift and the chances of a decent tea break were slim. As the junior nurse, I knew my shift would be spent in the sluice. Christmas would never be quite the same again.

We survived; just.  The staffing ratios for such ill patients were dreadful. There were 3 of us on the late shift; one staff nurse, one third year and me, the lowly first year.

Today, it is even worse. The patients are even sicker, staffing levels are ever more challenging and everything is just a little more frantic.

6603584b7d12d231d309527dd7d8274cBut, when my Dad was in High Dependancy post coronary bypass graft 7 years ago I was amused to see the Christmas tree made of inflated surgical gloves. Seemingly, some things haven’t changed.

So, enjoy your Christmas. Take good care of those close to you and try not to burden frontline services for trifling events. And if you do find yourself unfortunate enough to need their care, do remember that while they are caring for you, they are not with the ones they care about. So please say thank you.

I hope the festive season is everything you could wish for.

Sarah. x