Retired workers recount lifetime friendships and skills learned as NHS turns 70

Retired nurses and medical staff have taken a trip down memory lane to share their memories of working in the NHS through the years since its inception.

Isobel Tough is an 87 year old nurse who started her career in 1948
Isobel Tough is an 87 year old nurse who started her career in 1948

Former nurse Isobel Tough was part of the first intake of staff the year the NHS was created. The 87-year-old, who lives in Brechin, started her nursing career in November 1948 at the then new Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, giving more than 30 years of loyal service, before finishing her career as an occupational health nurse in Angus.

The mother of three, originally from Aberdeen, has spoken of how much she gained from her career, in both skills and friendship.

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Recounting how her career started, Isobel said: “I remember at 17 going from school to be interviewed by the matron at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

isobel Tough is an 87 year old nurse who started her career in nov 1948

“I turned 18 in the October and started my training which lasted over three years.

“The first three months were spent in the classroom, where we continued our education but were sent out in twos every morning to help on the wards.

“We were measured for uniforms and it had to be worn ‘just so’, otherwise the matron would have something to say.

“At that time it was our job to lift and turn patients and there were no mechanical aids to help with this task, which was required to prevent pressure sores.

Isobel Tough is an 87 year old nurse who started her career in 1948

“We also had to make sure beds were meticulously made, cleaning duties were completed to matron’s standards, and we said to ‘Hello’ to every patient when walking up and down the wards.

“Even if you lived near the hospital, you had to stay in nurses’ accommodation. There was a strict home sister in charge, and you needed to be in by ten every night, but that’s where I made friendships that have lasted to this day.

“I worked in the neurosurgical unit, first as a staff nurse on the ward, and then as a sister in the neurosurgical theatre.

“I got married and had to leave nursing as you weren’t allowed to stay on in those days following marriage.”

In 1964, Isobel returned to work as a nurse with charity Marie Curie, looking after terminally ill patients. This was at the beginning of the Marie Curie Community Service in Aberdeen.

Isobel then moved with her family to Brechin in 1966 taking a staff nurse role at Stracathro where she worked for a year, before moving to train in occupational health in 1971.

This role was looking after the health of the NHS staff in the Angus district, a job she stayed in for more than 17 years before retiring.

She said: “Nursing has changed a lot over the years. Back then we were caring for people who were in hospital for months, now hospital stays are a lot shorter. Nurses today have a more technical role, with trainees going to university. Getting a job in my day depended on your interview with matron.

“I’ve seen so many advances over the years. In 1948 there were very limited antibiotics and no widespread use [of them] in hospitals, needles were required to be sterilised by hand and people died of illnesses that can now be treated.

“But healthcare being free when it’s needed remains the same. I’m not sure what the future holds due to the expectations of the service and the cost to run it, but I’d like to hope it will be around helping and caring for people for the next 70 years.”

Around 100 members of the NHS Retirement Fellowship, who worked across 15 Edinburgh hospitals from the 1950s, met for their weekly coffee morning where they catch up with friends and former colleagues.

This week, in honour of the 70th anniversary of the NHS, the members welcomed a special guest, Scotland’s Chief Nursing Officer Fiona McQueen who chatted to the men and women who made up the backbone of our National Health Service.

Ms McQueen said: “I am immensely proud of the work of our nurses, midwives and other health professionals. They were, and remain, truly unique in their professionalism and dedication.”

Janey Tulley from Dalkeith started her career in 1960 and worked as a fever nurse, midwife and district nurse before hanging up her uniform in 2001.

The 78-year-old said: “I saw nursing change a lot over the years, with new treatments and ways of working.

“I think the NHS is invaluable, it’s been a huge part of my life both personally and professionally. I loved being a nurse and still miss it to this day.”

After meeting Janey – whose grandmother, mother and six sisters were all nurses – Ms McQueen added: “Hearing the experiences of those who worked for the NHS in its infancy demonstrates how far patient care has come as a result of innovation, investment and advances in treatment.

“The care and compassion displayed by those in the profession, however, has remained constant.”

Bill Grant, 90, got his first job at the Royal Infirmary when he was 18 years old and was working on the day the NHS came into being on 
5 June, 1948.

The former pathology technician worked across hospitals in the city until he retired 30 years ago. He said that he loved his work and thinks the NHS is “the very best thing”.

He said: “The very fact you could get a doctor without having to pay for it was a revelation. It moved treatment from the kitchen table to a safe environment.

“I feel sorry that it’s under pressure but I’m hoping it’ll come through. Long may it last.”

Sandra Binnie, 75, worked as a nurse for 51 years but it was while working for the public purse that she gained the most fulfilment.

She said: “It was a privilege to work for the NHS.

“There is a good work ethic and you’re working with the people who need you most, but the volume of work is high which meant sometimes you couldn’t sit and hold patients’ hands when they most needed it.

“The point of the service is that it is fair for all and it cannot be allowed to fail.”

A mental health nurse for 39 years, after moving from Galway to Edinburgh, Trisha Douglas trained at the Western General in Edinburgh before working at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Royal Edinburgh.

She said: “The NHS is a part of the British way of life.

“It is embedded in its culture and one thing people are proud of.”