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Looking back at a nursing career of over 70 years

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Sue Cook’s mother-in-law, Valerie Cook, is a former nurse about to celebrate her 100th birthday. Here, Sue shares the details of a career that spanned over 70 years.

Valerie Cook left the sixth form at Gowerton Grammar School in South Wales in 1936, aged 18, to go to London’s East End, where she began training as a nurse at St George’s.

She had secretly applied without telling her father, who arrived at school one day with her letter of acceptance from the hospital. She was summoned to the head’s office to face her father and the headteacher.

valerie cook

Valerie Cook

When she told them both that she was determined to become a nurse, the head told her to collect her things and leave the school that very day.

Her father was horrified – he had wanted Valerie to train as a teacher, but he eventually relented, and agreed to let her go on the understanding he would go to London and see if she wanted to return home after a month.

He was sure that Valerie would come to her senses when he made the journey down, but he returned home alone. Valerie coped well with the plethora of challenges nursing came up with in the area around the London Docks – including an enlightening few months of compulsory working with the ambulance service, which often entailed visits to brothels and to emergencies at the docks.

She devoted the rest of her working life to nursing and has many stories to tell of her early years, not to mention the travails of her wartime experiences. 

Valerie worked alongside the likes of New Zealand plastic surgeon, Archie McIndoe and surgeon Arthur Dickson Wright; travelled as an agency nurse on trains with troops being deployed during the war to remote hospitals, often at night in the blackout with all station and road signs removed.

She nursed in an isolation hospital in the Brecon Beacons when she had to leave London after being bombed out twice within a short space of time during the Blitz.

When she went back to her parents’ home for a short break, exhausted after enduring night after night of bombings in London, Swansea was razed to the ground that very same weekend.

Valerie returned to NHS nursing after the war when rules were changed about the employment of married women. She was a night sister for 20 years, and eventually became night superintendent in charge of the Mayflower geriatric hospital in Billericay until she retired.

She is still extremely proud of being “state registered” and her nurse’s buckle and belt are among her proudest possessions. She continues to dispense help and advice when she’s able to.

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