The New Arrival is my true story of training to be a nurse at Hackney Hospital in early 1970s. I made some great lifelong friends with a few of the nurses I lived with in the nurses’ home and worked with on the wards. I met patients that touched my heart and one or two that tested me to the limit. It’s a book jam packed with tales about hospital and London life during years filled with fun, fashion, music, romantic and some terrible dates, women’s lib, politics and how I was changed forever by the way of life in the East End over 40 years ago.
Please tell us about arriving in Hackney for the first time.
I was so excited to be there. Eager to learn and keen not show myself up as being a total novice, which I was of course. I just wanted to be one of the girls, and I know I was a bit of a sulky teenager when my mother insisted she came with me on the journey to the hospital in my father’s chauffeur driven car with my boarding school trunk in the back. It wasn’t the first impression I wanted to make! I was totally wide-eyed when I met the other nurses, they seemed so grown-up and confident to me. When I put my nurse’s uniform on for the first time it was like dressing up and becoming someone else, I loved it. And there was no settling in period - I was thrown in at the deep end on my first day on the Infants Ward dealing with some heart wrenching situations that meant I had to grow up fast.
What made you go into health visiting after 6 years?
I went into health visiting after finishing my obstetrics practice. I had been determined to become a health visitor since doing my community practice in my third year of nurse training. I was assigned to a glamorous health visitor called Miss Knox and when I saw how people really lived in small terraced houses and cramped tower blocks in Hackney it was a real eye-opener. After my first morning visiting mothers with Miss Knox I couldn’t believe the difference she was actually making. In one morning she’d helped with feeding, referred a mum for help with postnatal depression, sorted out nursery places for toddlers, got a mum a bit of money to buy the children some much needed new clothes, and told the council to come and fix the lift - but most of all she just listened. Listened to mums’ worries about their children, money and what their husbands were up to, and all I could do was make the tea and do a bit of washing up. By lunchtime my mind was made up; I was going to be a health visitor one day.
What is your most memorable story from the job?
There are so many stories; we couldn’t fit them all into the book! One story that really tested me was when I had to stand up for patients who were being treated badly by some of the nursing staff. I was very young and inexperienced and terrified I’d get the sack and very confused about what to do for the best. But I knew it was wrong and that I had to do something; I couldn’t just stand back and let people suffer. It’s really hard when you are in a situation where you have to go against orders from senior staff but what’s even more important than rank is a nurse’s duty to their patients. I think it really brought home to me that patients must come first and the standard of care is what makes the NHS, without that – why be there?
What have been your biggest highs and lows?
It’s always sad when you lose a patient. Death is part of being a nurse and when it seems untimely that’s always hard, and if it’s a mother or a baby well that never leaves you. You have to be professional and carry on and not let it affect your work but you never, never forget them. For me the highs were probably the amazing times I had with my friends at Hackney. We even put on a Staff Christmas Show and a good time was definitely had by all. Even a normal night out at our local the Adam & Eve used to turn into a night at the Palladium, as one of my friends who was training to be a Midwife called Wade, had been a Musical Hall star and would regularly get up on the tables and do high kicks and sing. On Duty, Wade was a seasoned professional but off duty – well she was a bit of a madam, but I liked her.
Please tell us about receiving your MBE.
I was thrilled to be put forward but I like to think of it as an honour for my profession not just for me. It was a wonderful day when I went to Buckingham Palace with my daughter Amy, and my sisters Jane and Bridget. Before you go through to receive your medal from the Queen you get a curtseying lesson but I’ve always been rather good at curtseying as it was de regarder at my convent boarding school so I wasn’t worried. Her Majesty is so impressive, she’s incredible in the breadth of knowledge she has and her home is very nice too. Afterwards, I went with my extended family for a celebratory dinner, it was one of life’s lovely moments.
Why do you now divide your time between Staffordshire and London?
My home is in Staffordshire and it’s where I raised my family. But Amy, my daughter lives in London with her husband and baby so I spend a lot of time with them on babysitting duty. Amy is a writer and helped me enormously with the book, so there’s always lots of work to be done - it’s not all trips to the park and the zoo.
What is next for you?
Amy and I are busy writing my second memoir which is set in the mid-1970s. It’s about my first years as a health visitor and all the characters I meet on my old patch in rural Kent. It’ll be out later this year. We are also completing a trust yourself parenting guide for your baby’s first year which draws on my experiences with families over 35 years of health visiting. It’s also being published by HarperCollins and will be out in 2015.
The New Arrival by Sarah Beeson MBE is published by HarperCollins on 27th March 2014