A lifetime dedicated to the NHS: Nurse Iris Heard

BY CALUM FRASER calum@slpmedia.co.uk

Iris Heard has been working for the NHS for almost 70 years.

The Welling resident started as a nurse in 1949, a year after the NHS was created, and she remembers treating patients from Deptford’s tenement blocks suffering from malnutrition and “riddled with fleas.”

“One woman,” she said, “was so verminous that we had to cut her clothes off. Her back was a seething mass of lice.”

She was born and brought up in Plumstead and trained as a nurse at the Miller General Hospital in Greenwich High Road.

She has witnessed the transformation of the NHS first hand and, on Thursday, she will celebrate its 70th anniversary.

She said: I’d wanted to be a nurse since the age of three, when I used to line-up my dolls and pretend they were ill.

My mother was very proud when I started nursing and used to say to people ‘My daughter has a career’.

Lots of my friends either worked in the Co-Op or didn’t work at all.”

Before the NHS, most people had to pay for their medical treatment, unless you went to one of the voluntary hospitals run by charities.

She said: “A lot of our patients at the Miller were suffering the effects of deprivation.

Many of them lived in tenement buildings in Deptford with no bathrooms. They would turn up to the hospital suffering from malnutrition and riddled with fleas.

“I remember one woman with very low haemoglobin who was so verminous that we had to cut her clothes off.

Her back was a seething mass of lice. We washed her and then smothered her in DDT lotion.

Four days later she was still covered in lice, which were sucking her blood and causing the low haemoglobin.

“People would stay in hospital for a lot longer than today – three weeks for a hysterectomy, two weeks for a tonsillectomy.

“I remember the first hip replacement at the Miller in 1952 – a woman of 44 who was in for three months.

“Patients with tuberculosis were nursed on the balcony of the medical wards as it was thought that fresh air could aid their recovery.

In the winter it was freezing so nurses were allowed to wear a navy blue cardigan over their uniforms.

Because they were in for a few weeks we would get to know the patients quite well.

They were always very grateful for their care. If they were confined to bed we had to give blanket baths (an all- over wash) and the men would usually be very embarrassed.”

Iris moved to the Memorial Hospital in Shooters Hill in 1953, where she worked as a staff nurse for four years.

She said: “There was a real emphasis on economy – we reused everything, from latex gloves to syringes. We used to boil up a fish kettle in the clinical room to sterilise instruments, bowls, syringes, gloves etc.

“Things are a lot easier now with disposable gloves and syringes.

“It was very hard, physical work. Aside from the clinical work, we had to make beds, serve meals, help patients to eat, empty bed pans and sluice them in the sink with a long handled brush.

“There were lots of injections then – the discovery of penicillin meant that infections such as pneumonia could now be cured, and in those days we had to give injections every four hours. Antibiotics were revolutionary – you could see that they worked.

“After I got married and had my son I didn’t work full-time for eight years apart from ad-hoc shifts in a family planning clinic.

In those days it was almost impossible for a woman to work after having a child – you would always be asked: ‘But who will look after your child if it’s ill?’”

By 1966 she managed to get a job at a night sister’s post at the Goldie Leigh Hospital in Abbey Wood.

She studied mental health care at Darenth Hospital while she was there and completed her degree in 1980.

Then in 1984 she worked as the nursing officer for a residential home in Blackheath for 30 adults with mental health and learning difficulties. She was there until she retired in 1996.

She said: “Sadly my husband died the following year, and soon after I was approached by my old manager to work at another residential home.

I subsequently worked at three more homes before retiring for good in 1999 aged 68.”

But then she took up the position as chairwoman of the Greenwich Meridian NHS retirement fellowship, which is open to those who have worked in the NHS.

“I think the NHS has changed a lot over the past 70 years,” she said, “although I’ve never been a patient myself. One of the main changes is the way nurses are trained – they now go to university and take a degree.

There are also more career opportunities – in the early days of the NHS you were either a student or a state registered nurse.

“Nowadays there are all sorts of other roles such as clinical nurse specialist, practice development nurse or nurse consultant, which I think is a very good thing.”

The fellowship is 40 this year. It meets once a month at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Greenwich and welcomes new members – anyone who’s interested can visit www.nhsrf.org.uk.

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