At the age of about five, I wrote in my school book, ‘When I am grown up, I will be a nurse’, and from then on that was my wish.
Only a year or so later I was in hospital getting a thorough grounding in what nurses did and how they behaved. Some were kind, and some were not so kind. Some were strict, and some were extremely lax. All in all though, despite being in hospital for just over a year and not enjoying the experience, I left there with my ambition intact.
I had been admitted to hospital initially with staphylococcal pneumonia, but as I had severe asthma that worsened every time I was sent home for the weekend, the doctors chose not to discharge me and instead told my parents I’d be better off at a special boarding school for sick children. Hence I spent the next four years at such a school.
As the school catered for sick kids, mainly asthmatics, diabetics, and coeliacs, it had a medical room and nurses who worked shifts. This was the sixties, and many of us only had contact with our parents via letters. Although parents could visit at weekends, those of us whose parents were not well off, or didn’t have a car, could often go a whole term with only those precious letters to keep us in touch. It was no wonder then, that some of us got very attached to certain members of staff, and apart from one or two teachers, my idols were the nurses. Well, two of the nurses, because just as at the hospital our nurses were a very mixed bag, ranging from the strict Irish night nurse who scared us to death to the kind and timid sister who cared for me when I had measles. That sister, and another who came later, gave me even more reason to want to be a nurse. They were my role models.
When I returned to mainstream schooling I kept up my desire to become a nurse, reading all I could about medical matters, as well as every fiction book I could lay my hands on that included nurses or nursing. But all the while, in the background, the bogeyman of my asthma continued to lurk. For one thing, I was only able to attend school because I was on corticosteroids. We didn’t know how bad they were for me at that time, but I would have been completely disabled without them so they seemed like life savers. Given the severity of my asthma, they probably were literally life savers. When I eventually reached the age of leaving school I had to accept that the only type of work I would be physically capable of doing was office work – something in which I had no interest whatsoever.
As I dragged myself through the dreary office years that ensued, I kept the nursing dream alive (and the writing dream, but that’s another story!), somehow imagining a future date when I would be fit enough. At that time my asthma was poorly controlled, and I was often very wheezy indeed. Then came the new steroid inhalers. With the strongest one available as well as the oral steroids I’d been taking since I was fourteen my asthma stabilised, and although by this time I was thirty, I decided to at last try nursing. I jumped through all the initial hoops, passed an exam, then had an interview, which I also passed. I was beginning to get excited at the prospect of finally achieving my dream.
Then came the medical. Except that I didn’t even get an actual medical. I’d barely been sitting in the chair two minutes before the doctor pointed out my reliance on corticosteroids. ‘You’d be too prone to infection,’ she said, and dug out some paperwork to read out to me to illustrate her point. And that was that. Except that I went home and cried for a solid twelve hours. The only time I’ve done that in my life.
So I couldn’t be a nurse, and although I came off the oral steroids several years later as new and more effective inhalers came along, I couldn’t bring myself to try again and face all that build-up only to be disappointed a second time. Not to mention that I was nearly forty by then.
But now I have all this knowledge of nursing, plus rich recollections of time spent in hospital in the sixties, and what better to do with it than write about it? In the same way that it was fun to write The Dream when I couldn’t get to New Zealand in person, it’s fun to write about being a nurse in the sixties. The Song gives me an opportunity to get nursing out of my system, in a way, and because my time in hospital at the age of six is so vivid in my memory, I know that a lot of what I’m writing about is authentic.