In the Health Service – Nursing and Ambulance (2007)

Location : Berlin & UK


My first job was nursing. I began at 18 years of age. At my time we didn’t have to study at all, work. For the first two years I was paid nothing. My parents had to pay for my learning at the hospital. In the third year I got my first pay. I can’t really remember, but it wasn’t very much, I know. It was just about enough to have a little pocket money. I worked in what you would call health like in King’s Lynn or Norwich Hospital. One of my friends worked with me and we had our exams at the same time. She was my best friends, but we worked on different wards. We were never allowed to work on the same ward. We had a very strict matron and ward sisters. We had lots of respect for the doctors as well.

I was going to be become a doctor but my parents couldn’t afford the fees. It was just impossible. I had all the qualifications from school but they couldn’t afford it so I did the next best thing and went into nursing. You start on a general ward as an internist and then you go from there to paediatric, specialize in fractures. You had to go through the whole lot. Once you’d done that for two years, in the third year you had to go for two months to the mortuary and you had to learn what they do when the people are deceased and what you do to them before they show them to the relations. It’s not very nice to go into it and I don’t think you’d want to know that. And after that we had our exams and I passed.

After my exams I worked a couple of years in that hospital and then I went into a specialised hospital for tuberculosis because I wanted to widen my knowledge and I worked there for two years. And then I went back. I had the offer to work in another hospital that wasn’t far from my home, again a general hospital, and I was most of the time there in gynaecology. I was all the time in gynaecology until I came to England.

I delivered hundreds of babies. One experience I particularly remember, it was just after the war and due to the number of fatalities in babies. The mothers hadn’t had the nourishment they really needed. A common illness was dyspepsia and most of them, unfortunately, died of it. But that was only for one or two years and then it became better. It was by then hardly heard of. The worst time for me was when I had to take one of these babies to the mortuary. We had no porters in those days. So that was the worst experience I can remember.

We had to work 12 hours a day with a break in between. Sometimes I worked from 6am until 2 and then I had a break and had to work from 4 to 8 or 4 to 10 pm. When the night duty started was different on each ward. In our time off we played tennis or went swimming. We couldn’t do very much. Two hours isn’t a lot really. Perhaps a little shopping. We had to be punctual and in those days you could not go out in your uniform. You had to arrive in your nurses’ uniform and when you went onto the ward you took your cuffs off, your collar off and you put on a big overall and put the straps around you and it was so big you had a big tail hanging down, and then you were allowed to go into the ward. And when you went off the ward you had to take that off and go back in your smart uniform. So it was not possible to go out in the same clothes on the ward to the outside and back. The discipline was sometimes very harsh.

Once I got into trouble. I threw a cake at the matron. I had my reasons. That was one reason why I left that hospital and went to another one. I wanted to have a birthday party. I had a cake and because I didn’t invite the matron she told me off, so I took the cake and threw it at her. I had a short temper then.

Working in hospital as a nurse you learn to have a great respect for life But we did have a social life too. We went out dancing. In those days we had the big bands and at weekends we went to the big dance halls. My father had a boat and in summer we went sailing. I had lots of friends and we had a good time.


I came to England on holiday when I was still working as a nurse and I met my husband in London while I was on holiday. And it developed from there. He came to Germany to see me and I went back to England and in 1960 we got married. And I was willing to nurse in England, but they asked me to take another exam and I wasn’t willing to do that. So I went to the London Ambulance Service. I had to do a course and I passed, again with flying colours, and I worked in the accident unit stationed first of all in Waterloo and then outside Smithfield Market. That’s when I started my work in England with the ambulance. I worked up to 1970 and then I had Jamie, my son, and then I stopped working with the ambulance. In the meantime we both ran a guest house and I ran the guest house with my family.

Working with the Ambulance Service was totally different from working in a hospital. You got a call and you responded and London was in those days just as busy as it is now. So you had your finger on the ‘do-dah’ and went on the pavement and the police guided you through. You had to be at the accident about seven minutes after the call, if possible, at the latest. That’s what we tried to do. There were funny stories and sad stories. It was an eye-opener. It was totally different from nursing because we picked the people up when they were injured or ill and we handed them into the hospital and then we left. When I worked in the hospital we would treat them. So it’s totally different.

There were highs and lows of course. Sometimes I wasn’t so happy, especially when there were injured children, deliberately injured by parents. That was a time when I thought I couldn’t do it any more. But you just have to grit your teeth. And then there were a lot of out-and-about homeless people in London, drunks. When we were called and they were lying in the street we had to pick them up. But we had an understanding. Sometimes we just took their clothes. I had to clean out the ambulance several times and then I thought we’ll just do what the others do. But then often we’d be called out to people who were mentally ill. They had to forcefully taken to mental hospitals. We always had police escort with that. And that was mostly done in the evenings when we were on night duty, never in the day time. I cannot understand why.

I had a close encounter once. The policeman was just putting a man in the back when the man nearly broke my hand. The policeman had to put him in hand cuffs. But these people couldn’t help it. They were ill. Or you’d be called to the Underground when somebody jumped and we’d have to pick up the pieces. Once I was called to a building site where the crane had overturned and a man had iron rods through him. One day you would be the attendant and another day the driver. If you’re the attendant you are the one who had to go to the patient first. So it was me that day. And we had to wait for the fire brigade and they cut the rods off. And we had to put him in a manifold harness which is a solid stretcher which is built like a little canoe where you put the patient in and strap them in so nothing can move. Then we put him on the crane and they got both of us down. I don’t like heights, but you do it. You just do your job And we asked afterwards at Guys Hospital and the nurses told us he was fine. He was ok. One arm was just damaged. We were always interested in cases like that.

And then we were called to the docks. There was a Polish freighter and a woman fell down the steep stairs We had to take a manifold harness again and I was the attendant and I had to go with her and be lifted off high onto the pier. I had to hold into it. I was just holding on for dear life. We took her to Guys Hospital, that was the nearest, And when I had done my job that day I was really ill. I can’t stand heights. You just do your job. But it’s rewarding too, very rewarding

We learned respect in those days. But there were times when we were not respecting our teachers, we were scared of them. That’s the difference, you see. When I look back I still respect other people’s property and elderly people. I try to understand young people. Sometimes it’s hard for my generation to understand young people. And I always had the great support of my husband. But unfortunately I lost him at Christmas four years ago. He always supported me whatever I did. That helped me a lot.

In those days you didn’t have the easy way with the stretchers like you do today. We had canvas stretchers and we had to put the poles through the slots of two iron bars. We had to lift them from the floor up into the ambulance. There was no other way of doing it. And sometimes they were very heavy. Or when we went to houses and the bedrooms were up stairs in old English houses the stair case was going half way round so the one who was holding the stretcher at the bottom had all the weight and the one at the top had to guide. It wasn’t always easy. I am almost convinced that I have half my illness to blame on that, carrying these heavy people. In a team there was a male and female. You couldn’t have two females in a team. For instance we had a policeman all in his motor bike gear who was knocked down by a lorry and two females could not have lifted him, so you always had a man and a woman.

And towards the end, not longer than a year before my Jamie was born, I started to get very bad back aches and I had to wear a corset and I was put on light duties in Waterloo Station. And then I became pregnant and then I had to stop it anyway. That was my working life.

There were some funny stories. When I wasn’t yet a fully qualified nurse, during the last year, I was on ‘Gynae’ and a couple came in. A man and a woman. We hadn’t got private rooms in those days. In the National Health hospitals there were no private rooms. They said, you get the woman ready for the operation. She had a minor operation done on her. And I went in there and there was no woman, there was a man sitting there. So I went to the Sister and I said, there’s no woman in there. And she said, yes there is. And I said, no there’s a man in there. She said, no, that’s a woman. They were two lesbians and I didn’t have any idea. So that was the funniest thing that happened to me. I was scared of going in back there. The sister said, you have to go in, but I said no, I don’t. You go in there, I said. I can’t undress a man. That isn’t a man, it’s a woman. So she was good to me in the end. She left me.

And then when I worked in a theatre I was so nervous. Because in those days you didn’t talk to the doctors like you do now. And we were so nervous. And the surgeon was awful, he was so strict and I had to pass him the instrument and I dropped it because I was shaking. You should have heard him. He shouted at me and sent me out of the theatre. And I had to go back again and he called me into his room and he told me to sit down. I thought it was the end of my nursing career. And then he took my hand and he said ‘it was your first day.’ I was really frightened. Then I cried because all this tension had to come out. But I saw the other side of that surgeon so I wasn’t scared any more.

During the time with the ambulance service I did eight hours a day. You did morning, afternoon shift and night duty. I preferred night duty because it was more interesting. In the day time we had calls sometimes that weren’t really calls for the ambulance, to my mind, the same as nowadays, I suppose. But the night duty was very interesting. You had lots of different cases you had to handle and you had to be more self-reliant at night because the doctors weren’t so available, just like they are now, And we had no walkie-talkies or anything. We just had to get on with it. Nowadays the ambulance can call straight away to the doctors. We didn’t have any of that. We called ourselves paramedics anyway. We did resuscitations and delivered babies. Nowadays the paramedics can give intravenous injections But we weren’t allowed to do that. It was much harder than nowadays. You had to decide for yourself what you should do.

When we were called to attend to an old lady, who was quite a while dead because you could see it, we weren’t allowed to take her in the ambulance then. We tried to get hold of the police. So one of us had to stay with her while the other went to the police station and brought the police back. That was so awkward. And I was the one who had to stay with her. These are the things that stay in your mind when you have to do it. If my colleague would have done it, it wouldn’t have stuck in my mind. I can still see that old lady. I had a lot of elderly people and young people passing away during my time. That goes with the job, nursing or ambulance. You get used to it. And it’s very strange. A lot of people died in my arms here in England as well. My neighbour called me and her husband died in my arms, my mother-in-law died in my arms, my husband died in my arms, To me it’s nice that you can help them go into heaven. I say a prayer. I try to keep them calm. Sing them a song, whatever. Now they’re just sleeping. It’s a wonderful thing if you can do that.

I only know one lady now who was a close friend from those days who lives in Hindringham. She worked in the ambulance at the same time as me. She had a child the same time as me. She had arthritis the same as me. She lives in Hindringham and I live in Binham and we’re still friends. I used to sing and that’s where we met, and then we found out that we had been in the ambulance at the same time.

When you used to go into hospitals you could smell the carbolic, you couldn’t help it. You’ve lost that cleanliness now. Even when you had your private clothes on you could smell it, you couldn’t get rid of it. But there were never infections. We nurses had to clean the baths and the bedsides. The cleaning ladies for the floors didn’t get near it. That was our first job when we came on to work. We never had incinerators and we just got on with the brush and those wards were so spotless and had so much carbolic you couldn’t get infections. And the nurses were well-disciplined. They didn’t go shopping in their outfits And another thing. We only had very restricted visiting hours. Wednesdays from 2-4pm Saturdays from 2-4 pm Sundays from 2-4 pm and 6-8pm. The babies weren’t by the bed side. They were in a separate room behind glass. And if the visitors wanted to see them they just brought them to the glass. And at feeding time there was no visitor on the ward. There was just the mothers and the babies. That made a big difference. And the ward sisters were very strict and the matron. And because of that discipline it was totally different. And nowadays the difference is unbelievable. I have had 17 operations. I never let them know I was a nurse. I have an ulcer on my leg. I dropped a pan on it. But I fear the hospital now. I just fear it.

When my son Jamie was 3 years old he had meningitis I spotted it straight away because of my training, and I was in hospital with him in no time. We lived in London then. I got him straight in the hospital and that was a good thing. He had a viral infection so that was all right. He lives in Kent now and he’s 37 this year. I have two step children, a boy and a girl and I have four grand children. We get on very well. The youngest is 29. The boy lives in Kent and the girl lives in Surrey. We have a good relationship.

I thought you were going to ask me about the war years. This I have to tell you. We German people did not know about the concentration camps. We were told there were zones where you couldn’t go. We were told they were prisoner of war camps, nothing else. And then they transported these people like Jewish people at night. We didn’t know anything about it. We worked with them and they couldn’t talk about it. They weren’t allowed to talk about it. So we had no idea. And when it came out after the war it was a shock to us. I was a Hitler girl. Of course I was a Hitler girl, one hundred percent. You could go at night in the street then. Nobody touched you. You could keep your doors open. You could leave your bicycle outside and it was still there next day. You see again, discipline.

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