This year, the National Health Service turns 70 years old. It's a big milestone for an institution that, in the beginning, wasn't very popular at all. Taxation-based healthcare for everyone under the control of the government has always been, it seems, a contentious issue for some.
Today, the NHS is one of the biggest employers in the world; nearly 2.5% of the UK population work for it and our relationship with it is nothing if not thoroughly British. Yes, we will complain about it merrily, but should it come under threat from any outside force, we'll self-righteously defend it until the cows come home.
Over the past few years, the NHS has had a rocky ride. Government cuts, an ageing population, the mental health crisis and much more has meant it's been sorely tested, its future uncertain. At the moment, there are a lot of unanswered questions, and that's before we even get started on Brexit; because who knows what will happen to the 11% of NHS doctors who hail from EU countries after that goes through?
One thing remains certain however, which is that the people of the NHS are some of the most incredible in the world. From trekking miles through snow to get to work this past winter to the 59% of staff who work unpaid overtime each week, sacrifices upon sacrifices are made every day to keep the UK well.
Actually, it's worth noting that the NHS is overwhelmingly staffed by women; they make up 77% of the workforce. Which is a huge amount when you consider that women account for just 47% of the UK's overall job force. And so, to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, we spoke to a family of women who've been working in it since day one. Matriarch Lorna Glover, now 92 years old, qualified as a nurse in 1946 and became part of the NHS when it was created in 1948. Lorna even met her husband, also a nurse, on the job. Since then, over the past 70 years, Lorna's daughter, Carole Aherne, and her daughter, Jennifer Aherne have signed up and kept the tradition going.
Here's what they had to say about how things have changed over the past 70 years, what their jobs look like now, and what their hopes are for the future of the service.
Jennifer Aherne, 33
I qualified as a band five staff nurse in 2010 and began my career on a busy cardiology/neurology mixed medical ward. I currently work as a nurse consultant for a healthcare IT company, and work a day a month clinically at a large London hospital trust.
If I am working on a clinical day, this typically begins at 8am, receiving handover from the night staff, and commencing a morning medication round. This is followed by addressing the needs of the patients I am caring for, washing, wound dressing, discharge planning, liaising with the multidisciplinary team. Breaks are typically 30 minutes on an eight-hour day and are fitted in where possible.
Being from the family I am from, the amount of pride expressed when I decided to do my nursing was overwhelming. I was never pressured to join the NHS yet when I did it was so obvious how very proud my family were, especially Mum and Nan. I have generally received very positive responses from people regarding nursing; a lot of people say "Oh well done, I couldn’t do it" yet I think that about many other jobs! However it is very easy to tell who has interacted with the NHS and who hasn’t. People who have been 'well' tend to have a much lesser understanding of what the NHS does, and especially the role nurses do now; many seem to think our job hasn’t changed since my nan started!
I have so many amazing memories of working in the NHS, the vast majority of which are patient-centred; as nurses we 'collect' patients in our heads, an incredible selection of people we have been fortunate enough to meet who stay with us for years. From watching a young patient walk for the first time following a stroke, to holding a patient’s hand just before they go into surgery for a very high risk operation. Then greeting that same patient when they return to the ward from ITU 10 days later. Personal successes are intertwined with patient care.
I have been lucky enough to have worked with the most amazing teams through my career. In nursing, bonds with colleagues are formed very quickly as the need to depend on them in an emergency can happen at any time. We also are involved in situations that many people cannot imagine, so a sense of humour is essential. The long hours and often very tense and difficult situations create bonds that last and allow us to support each other, whether we need to laugh or cry. And we do laugh, a lot.
It is hard to think of a funny memory that doesn’t involve bodily fluids! There are so many times I have laughed at work, from karaoke to the radio with a room of gentlemen, to finding creative ways to dress some interesting wounds, to a colleague accidentally headbutting a junior doctor in the bum through a curtain!
The NHS has been there my entire life. I was born into it, and have developed personally and professionally while working for it. Friends and family have received incredible care, from world-leading teams who are there 24/7 regardless of personal, socioeconomic, religious, ethnic or psychological circumstance.
Carole Aherne, 60
I started in 1976 as a pupil nurse at the old York School of Nursing. My first job following qualifying was as factory nurse at York sugar beet factory before dual training as a psychiatric nurse.
I usually start at 7.30am and this involves setting up clinical areas with drops and lotions, prescriptions, calibrating some equipment, checking the crash trolley, checking which consultant is in which room and that all consulting rooms and clinical areas are cleaned down, as well as identifying if all required patient notes are present. We cover everything from glaucoma, minor surgery, surgery follow-up, cataracts pre- and post-op... The day officially ends at 6pm but frequently the urgent clinic can run over, up until 8pm.
The most significant change has to be using first names and not just a surname or "Nurse(!)" when being addressed. We call the sister by name too now, as opposed to her title. The relationships that nurses now have with consultants has also changed massively. Doctors actually speak to the nurse they’re working with as opposed to dealing directly with Sister.
Nurse’s opinions and experience are definitely respected more now; we are very much part of the clinical care team. There has also been a vast modernisation of the equipment used. When I began nursing, all blood pressures etc were performed manually; now most of these things are electronic. Though I am sure some of the trolleys and tables have been there since the 1970s!
We had fun too; while living in nursing accommodation we had to ask permission to stay out on an evening, and we often used to sneak friends and boyfriends into our rooms. One visitor accidentally used the internal phone to try and call a taxi, and connected to the porter which gave the game away – all the forbidden guests had to run and hide!
When I started in general nursing, everyone thought I was marvellous, an 'angel'. But when I did my mental health nurse training, people couldn’t understand why I would want to do such a job. Stigma at the time was huge and became even worse when I went into social services and learning disabilities.
The NHS has been the backbone of our family. I am immensely proud of how far my daughter has gone with her career, something I don’t think I could ever achieve. I am proud of my mum and dad who worked for so little money. The NHS has been there for my family throughout their lives, and I hope it continues to do so. The care they provide is exceptional and I hope this continues to be the case for future generations.
Lorna Glover, 92
I qualified as a state registered nurse in 1946, after three years of training at Haywood Hospital in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent. I did two years' work before the NHS came into being. We started work at 7.30am and had two hours off during the day, three on a Sunday. We worked 12-hour shifts through the day and the night. First job on the morning was to get report from the night staff, then Sister would give out the duties, be it bed-making, dressing, medications. We would wash the patients who needed it, which, alongside the wash, involved rubbing the patient’s back with methylated spirits then talcum powder to prevent bedsores. If the patient got bedsores, woe betide you! Meals came up from the kitchen, and Sister gave them out. If the patient needed assistance, it was the duty of the nurse caring for them to support them. During the late 1940s my husband also qualified as a nurse, which was very rare for a man at the time; he even joined the RAF as a nurse. I retired in 1985.
I decided to train as a nurse during the war. I wanted to do something to help people, as opposed to killing them. I remember my father saying to me if I did my training he would be proud of me for the rest of my life. I remember the NHS coming into force, and everyone was overwhelmed by the fact that things would be free. In this time, many people took advantage and would go to the NHS for very small things; this settled after a few years – it can take a while for things to get through to people! When the NHS first came in, we also got a small pay rise as nurses, which was nice.
The ward changed a lot over the years. All the cleaning, washing of patients, and nursing care was split between the nurses. One change I noticed for women was that pre-war, nurses would all have been married women; when I began my training in 1943 during WW2, I was single. Another big change was in midwifery training – it used to be three years for nursing and two years for midwifery. Now midwifery takes the same amount of time to train as a nurse.
All the nurses lived locally to each other, with many of us in a nurses' home together. The nurses' home was very nice! We had our own rooms and built-in wardrobes. We had a living room to gather for a chat. It was lovely. The sister on the local surgical ward was abrupt and intimidating but our ward sister was lovely. The paediatric sister was also fun, and would have a laugh with the staff. I had a lovely group of friends on the medical ward and I really enjoyed going into work there. Good nursing teams are very special, especially when led by a good ward sister.
My funniest memory is of a patient we had in who used to talk out loud and always say the daftest things that came into his head. He always saw the funny side of things and would have the nurses in absolute stitches.
The NHS are recruiting for nurses now. If you've been inspired by any of these stories and are interested in learning more, click here.