Spice Girl

Working for Ida had taught me many things, but one major lesson was that I needed to work with regulations in place! I found a new job in a nursing home and because I was under eighteen I was given the role of a support worker, not a care assistant. This was far more suitable for my age. The shifts involved feeding the elderly patients, making beds (without anyone in them!), sorting laundry and helping in the kitchen. I worked with genuinely caring nurses, including the manager who took time to make sure I was OK and talk to me about nursing as a career. The only one not to fit this description was a terrifying agency nurse. One Saturday morning, I was quite happily going from room to room, changing the beds. Obviously I wasn't doing a good enough job in her eyes because she suddenly started screaming at me. I had no clue why until she made it loud and clear that I should've been folding the sheets with hospital corners. 'What the hell are hospital corners?' was my thought. I was still only sixteen and had never worked in a hospital so I had no idea of this technique. She bellowed at me, pushed me out of the way - because clearly, I was very annoying - and showed me in furious fashion how to fold the sheets around the mattress corners like an envelope. It's a really good way of getting the sheet tight and I was happy to do it, I just wasn't sure why she needed to act like some sort of military commander. She made me practice in front of her all morning while she barked her orders and followed me into each room, inspecting my skills. Eventually, she was satisfied that I could fit sheets to the standard she expected. I spent the rest of that shift avoiding her at all costs and was very grateful that she never returned!

Any extra time I had, I spent chatting to a spirited and funny resident called Kate, who spent all her time in her room upstairs. She'd made it a very comfortable space and it was more like a tiny flat than a bedroom, with a small lounge area and personal, homely touches. She had suffered a stroke so was impaired physically but not in the slightest mentally. She refused to socialise downstairs as, sadly, all of the other residents were struggling with dementia. This infuriated Kate wildly as none of them could offer her the interaction she needed. If the staff did ever manage to coax her downstairs she would sit in an armchair and scowl at them, determined not to speak to any of the residents around her! There was sex-obsessed Didi who always had a wide-eyed, excited look on her face and made it her daily mission to tell any male nurse, chef or tradesman what she’d like to do to them in the bedroom. She sat next to Daphne who was the sweetest, most gentle lady but whose dementia caused her to constantly ask when her mum and brother would be home. It was heartbreaking to hear her as she sounded like a bewildered young child but, to someone of Kate’s mental capacity, spending time with Daphne was completely frustrating. Then there was Frank, who spent most of his time trying to find the whisky his family bought him and sneak it into his room. He once succeeded and I found him staggering all over the place, unable to speak or stand up properly! I often thought Kate should have joined him, they could have had quite a party.

Kate was seen as difficult because she hated leaving her room but I admired her tenacity and, during my time there, we developed a lovely relationship. I always bought her a newspaper on my way to work and would sit on the end of the bed listening to her stories during my tea breaks. She would tell me about her past, the family that was no longer around and how sad she was at the state of her life now. It would seem that my mum’s efforts at church were coming in handy after all, except that with Kate it was a more relaxed, genuine conversation. At sixteen, I didn’t realise how deeply older people value time and interest from a younger generation. Twenty-two years on, I understand that they are too often overlooked in society and seen as irrelevant and behind the times, yet they have so much to teach us from their experiences, especially the wartime generation. I didn't know it but was slowly learning that friendship has no age barriers.

After almost two years working at the nursing home, I was finding the hours a struggle. Early and late shifts were difficult to fit around days at college and, with my A-Levels approaching, I needed something that gave me more time to study. At this point, I was still aiming for a midwifery degree and needed to do well enough to get a place at university. I found the perfect job in a day centre at the end of my road. It was in a beautiful listed building with gorgeous gardens and was, apparently, where Anne Boleyn used to stay if she was in the area. Some believed she was still there, haunting the upstairs rooms. It was weekend work only, and I had a great time assisting on days out or helping with various activities. The staff were a close team who provided true patient-led care and the atmosphere was so warm and inviting. Sadly, as is so often the case, funding was an issue and, after I had worked there for a year, the day centre was closed.

I didn’t get another job immediately as I was now concentrating on exams and university applications. I had chosen two - Hertfordshire and Kings College in London - and they couldn’t have been more different. I remember walking into the interview room at Hertfordshire, where the rest of the applicants were waiting and being greeted by a wall of stony faces. Anyone that knows me will agree that I find it very difficult not to buy sparkly clothes. I had bright red hair and, for the interview, I'd decided to wear a glittery top under a suit. The sensibly-dressed, mousy-brown-haired girls sitting before me were obviously not impressed by this Spice Girl! It didn’t take me long to realise that I wouldn’t have fitted in but I felt bad that my dad had taken the time to drive me there. Rather than ask him if we could leave, I decided to act like a complete buffoon in my interview so that I wasn't offered a place, sighing my way through questions and acting like I had no clue of the answers. My plan worked.

I almost missed my Kings interview because I'd become distracted by a new boyfriend. I only remembered about it the night before and went panicked and completely unprepared. My boyfriend, Dan, got the train with me along with Martin (one of those lovely uncles that everyone has who isn’t really your uncle) who directed me around London as I was clueless back in 1999. The students there were much more individual and I instantly felt relaxed. The girl next to me had bright purple hair so nobody thought anything of mine. I had to write an essay on the history of nursing and, by some miracle, actually did OK in both this and the interview and they offered me a conditional place. When the day came to collect my results my family were away. I was a bit apprehensive phoning my parents as I didn't do as well as I had hoped. My dad gave me the sound advice that, as long as my results enabled me to move onto the next stage, that was all that mattered. Thankfully, they did and I was able to consider my place at Kings. Only, by this time, I'd spent two years working with nurses and had a last minute change of heart. Rather than study midwifery, which I felt could be limiting if I didn't like it, I decided to go through the clearing process and apply for a general nursing degree instead. I had a relaxed interview with two very grounded and approachable lecturers at Anglia Polytechnic University - as it was then - and was relieved to be offered a place. I started my degree in September 1999 and that's when the real stories begin...


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