Dedicated to Kate
Last weekend I gathered with a group of special ladies to celebrate 30 years since we had started our nurse training together. Our school of nursing has long since gone, nurse training has changed beyond all recognition and neither of our teaching hospitals are in existence in their previous state. But half of our nursing set gathered together in London, travelling from as far afield as New York, for a trip down memory lane and renewing/strengthening old friendships.
We trained at Bloomsbury College of Nursing and Midwifery and spent the majority of our time living and working between University College Hospital and the Middlesex Hospital, situated on opposite sides of Tottenham court Road.
UCH opened its doors on the Gower Street cruciform site in 1906 and this Victorian red brick building remains imposing, if impractical next to its modern day counter part on Euston Road. A wonderful lady, Lucie, gave up her day off in order to show this group of old nurses around a building that closed as a hospital in 1995, but for us still holds so many memories….tunnels beneath the buildings from nurses’ home to hospitals, cockroaches (Yes, REALLY!), endless stairs and the founder’s portrait on the staircase encased by wooden panelling and doors.
It was written into the Night Sisters’ contracts that at the beginning of their shift they must close these doors, for if the doors were left open there would be 3 sudden, unexpected deaths in the hospital that night. The building is now used by the medical school for research labs, but it was lovely to see the preserved nursery rhyme pictures on the once children’s ward and the stunning architecture.
Sadly the future of the beautiful old Middlesex Hospital building on Mortimer Street was not so secure. It opened in 1757 and had further wings added in 1766 and 1780, but the whole hospital was rebuilt in the 1920s only to be closed in 2006 with the opening of the new UCLH. The building was demolished in 2008 and due to the financial crash, the site remained undeveloped for several years.
The only part of our building to still be standing in the newly developed Pearson Place, is the grade II listed hospital chapel and it was here that we gathered for remembrance, commemoration, cream teas and Prosecco! It felt strange to walk into the sleek lines of Pearson Place (also known as Fitzroy Place). So many memories surrounded us and we brushed shoulders with many ghosts – including one of our own, to whom this post is dedicated.
The Middlesex hospital chapel was a place for patients and staff alike, situated in the middle of the hospital, stunningly beautiful, unconsecrated, without denomination and open to all. We saw laughter and tears, fear and pain, marriage and love within that small pocket of calm situated in the midst of a busy teaching hospital. I remember singing in there during night shift breaks – not allowed I’m sure – and hiding out after my first patient death. In order for the space to always be welcoming and never shut away, the main doorway had a special glass door fitted to comply with fire regulations (I believe) and yet to be visible every hour of the day, open for all.
Today the newly named Fiztrovia Chapel has been restored by the developers and has a cultural focus, overseen and managed by a charitable foundation. During the period that the site was undeveloped, the old chapel was closed up and reopening it, introducing the outside air pressure and movement actually caused damage to much of the original gold leaf decor. A huge restoration project followed and the foundation to maintain the chapel was founded. It was through the foundation that we were able to visit the chapel and were given a wonderful historical “tour” by the lovely manager Sarah.
She gave us information about the history of the building and archive material that she continues to uncover, and in turn we were able to provide stories from our time during the 80s. Whilst there, a group of physiotherapists who worked in the Middlesex Hospital 50 years ago arrived to view the chapel and share memories. This little Gothic place of beauty, full of gold mosaic and stunning stained glass restored so lovingly by a local firm, costs £10,000 per month to maintain – but to so many of us it is priceless. If you are ever in the vicinity of Mortimer Street (just off Oxford Street), or are looking for a wedding venue or a film location – the Fitzrovia Chapel is well worth a visit.
Emotions were high on Saturday – for memories, for each other, for friendship. We worked hard and we played hard – there weren’t many central London night spots unknown to us. Anyone remember the Dreamboys? We do! We lived together, we grew up together and we probably shared some of the most intense times of our lives. Many a time we found ourselves thrown in at the deep end at such a young age. Our life experience by the time we qualified in our early 20s was way beyond that of many of our peers – we were pretty street wise!
Have we changed? No…not really! At breakfast on Sunday one of the others said that although the saying goes that people change, actually it isn’t true. Despite marriages, children and whole different lives, we all slipped back to being twenty year olds without thinking. I had been anxious about going and the day before the anxiety levels were growing. Whilst my first back surgery was whilst I was a student nurse and I had always dislocated, had migraines, anaemia and fainted – only one of my peers has actually seen me “disabled” by my condition. It still feels like a big thing to get my head around, and whilst they are nurses and can care for me, I actually don’t want my mates to have to take me to the loo! So hubby became an honorary nurse for the weekend – he knows them all anyway!
So life goes on and we all leave behind our own little stories carving out a slice of history. When the very fabric of the buildings that you made that history in have changed beyond recognition, the emotions are so mixed. The memories of the nurses’ homes – one at UCH and one at The Middlesex – will always be with my friends (refreshed as history repeated itself when we got in to trouble for setting off the security alarms 30 years on – a stunned student let a group of middle aged women declaring “we used to live here” into the building!), alongside friends & colleagues, patients and relatives, skills gained, calamities forgotten.
I felt that those familiar yet different surroundings triggered feelings and long buried memories, hopes and dreams, the best and worst of life. Is this a familiar sentiment for everyone at particular stages of life? I wonder if sometimes we get so caught up in the minutiae of what is happening today, that the amazing things already achieved and shaping our lives are (unintentionally) forgotten. Maybe one or two of those ghosts that we all have, be they loved ones or for us patients, would even give us a pat on the back and tell us we did make a difference.
I know that some of my set read this. Ladies, I say to you that it remains an honour to have shared my informative years with you and last weekend just reminded me how much I have missed you all (I always felt rather disconnected from the set on my return after 6 months away for back surgery). To don our hoodies and reconnect was a privilege – always have been and always will be ordinary girls/women doing extraordinary work.
This is in honour of Kate, who died when her career was only just beginning.