“In 1961, twenty-four young women came together in a classroom at The Royal Surrey Country Hospital in Guildford, Surrey. We were entering our three-month period of preliminary nurse training. With its completion, we could begin our official journey to become State Registered Nurses. But first, we had to pass through Sister Cartwright’s schoolroom, her capable hands, and caring heart. Only twenty students emerged from her classroom and by the end of our three years, we were a graduating class of sixteen.” So I wrote for ‘Learning to Heal’ published by Kent State University Press in 2018.
Of those sixteen nurses who graduated in 1964, eight left England searching for working opportunities in other countries. We loved nursing and yet knew that it would be near impossible to afford a life much beyond the student style we already lived. My three cottage mates and I left for Australia, Africa, America, and Canada.
In this last year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen nurses in England, and all over the world, work harder and longer than ever before. They, along with medical consultants to cleaners, have been tireless in their dedicated care of their patients. They have given their best to bus drivers and to Boris, and so it seems something of a wet fish in the face to hear this year’s budget distributions to the National Health System – while understanding that education, business, and all endeavors need financial aid at this time. Many public sector workers had a pay freeze, and the NHS staff account for half of that budget. People cost money. Last year this very government promised an over 2% pay increase. Nada. And yet, tucked away in the LBC, a little radio program, comes the news of the HMRC, short for the tax collector, garnering a total 13% pay rise. They may deserve it, but it brings back the wet fish feeling.
Before Brexit and COVID, nurses were moving across Europe and other countries, as we had done before them. In accepting the Tillie Olsen Award for ‘Learning to Heal’ I spoke of that too: “Oft times we choose nursing as a pathway from one social environment to another, usually empowerment and/or of a social context.” After Brexit many European nurses returned to their home countries, leaving England once again – the poorer.
In this Government Budget, Rishi Sunak is not looking so Dishy with a 1% pay raise for the NHS nurses, with other public-sector workers’ pay is frozen. “A row has erupted,” says one headline, “Unions warn,” says another. And I think how when I graduated in 1964 I made the conscious decision not to join the Royal College of Nursing because in their mandate was a clause whereby nurses could strike. I couldn’t believe that action would ever be needed or used. But today it is not a stretch to see how it can be discussed. We understand that equipment and machinery are expensive. But we remember the incredible spending blotches of this government: the huge Nightingale hospitals, erected with fanfare and speed, stand empty – and are soon to be dismantled. Nobody had thought of the staff needed to run them. Meanwhile, old brick-and-mortar hospitals remain hugely overcrowded, and last spring some even came close to running out of oxygen. Then there are the containers of PPE ordered from Turkey last May at a cost of millions of pounds. The shipments were delayed and then found to be below standard and useless on arrival. All this while firms in England were converting factories into making the equipment needed. I could go on, but you get the picture.
You would have thought Boris Johnson, with his own hospitalization and desperate need for nursing care, would have learned something. But as profuse as his thanks were at the moment, he thought no more of the nurses than of a maid who has ironed his shirt, nicely.
Boris has other things to think about. This week schools reopen across England. There will be protocols of swab testing and masks in place, but not yet the sensible vaccination of all teaching staff. While fact-checking this I found an on-line petition to bring this item forward for Parliament. And signed it.
As we look up from Little England, which looks smaller by the day, there is a place to be grateful for a moment, for our smallness brings the ability of the mass vaccination program being rolled out across the country. The fact that we have a higher ratio of deaths per capita than almost every other country in the world is put to one side for the moment and hopefully will be dealt with later.
But we do lookout, even knowing that what we are seeing is often curated for our viewing: not much from Belarus or Moscow but still horror from Myanmar where, according to Reuters, close-by residents were warned not to enter the cemetery on Friday. The police and military were digging up the body of 19-year-old Kyal Sin in an effort to prove that the bullet that killed her could not have been theirs. They couldn’t prove it and so the protests continue to grow. A small change has happened that the military is mostly now using rubber bullets rather than live ammunition – mostly.
Meanwhile, The Pontiff, Pope Francis, traveled on a commercial plane on a pilgrimage to Iraq. He met with Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other religious leaders and visited churches and communities bombed by ISIS in northern Iraq.
Many years ago, when Pope Francis was still the archbishop of Buenos Aires, California’s Bishop Bill Swing, (Also known to KWMR golfing listeners as a fine golfer and supporter of KWMR) was visiting that city. They talked of Bishop Swing’s dream of a United Religions Initiative and together gave the first interdenominational service at the Cathedral. Now, as Pope Francis, he carried that message of inclusiveness deep into the Muslim world at Ur, the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
Timing and Dosage and the Saga of the Sussexes. I think back to our beloved Sister Cartwright and wonder that there was not a similar helping hand to light a lamp and show the way forward on the new path and calling for the young family. I hope that wherever their journey takes them they find such a person, who, like a nurse, will hold their hand in the darkest of times.
This has been a Letter from A. Broad.
Written and read for you by Muriel Murch
First aired on Swimming Upstream – KWMR.org.
Web support by murchstudio.com