How it was fifty years ago
Watching some episodes of Melvyn Bragg’s series ‘Reel History’ on BBC television recently about the start of the NHS and the opening of the M1 Motorway, I was reminded of the time I was driven by ambulance on the newly constructed M1 Motorway from London to Birmingham when I was working as a staff nurse at the Bedford General Hospital in 1959.
Before the M1 was officially opened by Mr Marples, the then Minister for Transport, I was one of the first people to travel from Bedford to London as part of my job. It was an emergency journey to take a very sick child to the Whittington Hospital in North London in an ambulance with a police escort of two motorbike outriders.
I was on day-duty one afternoon when a two year-old boy was admitted to the children’s ward; he was unconscious, having fallen from the top of a playground slide. It was soon apparent to the Paediatrician and the Surgeon that the child was in urgent need of surgery to relieve the pressure in his skull from a brain haemorrhage. Our local hospital then did not have the resources for such an emergency. The nearest hospital that could help was the Whittington - 60-odd miles away. I was told to prepare to accompany the child as ‘special nurse’ by ambulance; we would be leaving within a few minutes as the specialist surgery needed would be available that afternoon.
The casualty doctor gave me a quick checklist of observations and what to do in a crisis before leaving me in the ambulance with the driver’s mate for support. My responsibility would be to observe the child’s condition and keep his body functions stabilised on oxygen and intra-venous fluids to keep him alive and breathing until we reached the Whittington Hospital. The child was lying in an adapted cot and there seemed to be tubes and wires everywhere - though compared with today’s advanced technology, it was all fairly basic. Feeling very apprehensive, we drove out of Bedford on four wheels and with a prayer for my young charge.
Everything seemed to happen very quickly, but with a sense of quiet calm from all involved. There was no time to see where we were travelling and no chance to look out of the windows, but I could hear the roar of the bikes. I had no idea we were on the motorway until the gears changed and the flashing lights and sirens were turned on, warning of our approach to the suburbs. We raced through red lights and the road ahead was cleared of traffic. My main concern was for the little boy, Alfie, whose pulse and breathing were now weak, but I was anxious too for his worried mother, who was sitting next to the driver in the front.
The accident department at the Whittington Hospital had been alerted to our arrival and their emergency team quickly took the child away to the operating theatre. After giving them all of the details and filling out and signing all the necessary forms, we found ourselves left in the limbo that follows when all the excitement disappears through another door to a different field of emergency, and the specialists.
We had done our job and after a cup of tea, we got in the ambulance to return to Bedford. I sat next to the driver on the journey back, wondering how the little boy was responding under the care of the surgeon. It was now dark and for the first (and probably last) time I would see the new six lane motorway completely empty of any other traffic apart from our ambulance. We wondered at all those miles of street lamps on just for us, as by this time the police bikes had vanished into the night.
Sadly, we were later to learn that our little patient had died the following day. What a dreadful experience that must have been for his poor mother while I had been feeling so exhilarated by the novelty of the modern motorway. Later, I was saddened that all our efforts had failed.
Nowadays, every hospital has the resources and trained staff on stand-by ‘24/7’ to cope with accidents and those needing emergency surgery and care within their region. Advances in paramedical care mean that the rescue services have up-to-date technology of a very high standard. Now even the worst cases can be quickly and safely transported to appropriate centres of excellence in time to save many lives, and we can all feel safer in their professional hands.
Children are especially prone to accidents; some are severely injured as a result and some do not survive, causing families inexorable anxiety and pain. Everyone should be aware of accident prevention where children are concerned: they are so quick at getting into difficulties. Yet, so many have cause to be grateful for the wonderful, life-saving work of our rescue services and the paramedics’ expert care, often in difficult situations; and it is the advances in how they are able to keep us safe and cared for in a ever-changing world which have improved beyond the imagination of those working half a century ago.
Ann Pugh trained as a RSCN (Children’s Nurse) in the 1950s, and retired in 1980 as Sister of the Children’s Centre at York District Hospital in 1989.