NURSES and nursing figured prominent
ly on my screen last week in the news and else where, and a casement
or two was opened on some pretty forlorn aspects of our land. Most of these insights came during the week's edition of Man Alive, the battering B.B.C.-2 upturner of social stones. It began in rare form with an angry, and Irish, nurse confronting us even before the titles came up and saying, "Why don't the taxpayers demand . • ?" That word "taxpayers" always alerts me. Whenever I hear it used instead of "people" I suspect that someone is trying to whip up some minor and easily cured abuse into a nice juicy scandal.
As soon as we had had the titles we got the programme's editor, Desmond Wilcox, almost as angrily telling us: "These are the facts . .." and including as one "fact" that there was "a crisis" in our hospitals, whereas the programme went on to show that the crisis, if such a vague thing can be a fact, is not actually now but in the future. And later, too, one of the reporters talked of foreign nurses as "the cheapest line of indentured labour in Britain today."
The sad thing was that all this hysteria was quite unnecessary. Everyone with any knowledge of the nursing world, from bossman Cross man down, seems to be already agreed that there are in it a great number of things that ought to be remedied. And the broad outline of what is wrong emerged clearly enough from the programme.
Nursing, it seems clear, is the victim of the slow shift in our society that has been going on ever since we began recovering from the selfinflicted wounds of the 193945 War. The trouble has its roots in such basic facts as that there are now more of us in these islands. Our living standards have risen, too. And consequently there are not only more patients but they feel entitled to better treatment.
Science, that universal whipping-boy, has played its part as well. There is the possibility of curing many more cases, providing we are willing to spend more money doing so. And there is, too, a comparatively new phenomenon: the general feeling that one is entitled always to be well.
Not so long ago, after all, people expected to be ill in some way or another much of the time and accepted that there was a long list of in, curable diseases. Now we pay our contributions to the National Health Service, see that they are pretty large, and expect in return health, from cradle to grave.
A side.-factor of our increasing prosperity, too, is the importance living standards assume in all our minds. It becomes the prime duty of the governments we elect to keep up those standards. Consequently the darlings of the general economy become the productive industries, and in turn they find themselves in a position to seize the labour they want by offering fat wages.
Hospitals are not able to do this, and the security they once offered instead is scorned now. So they are unable to hold the young girls long enough for them to feel the vocational pull that nursing can exert. "I have never met a nurse who did not enjoy her work," declared a consultant during the programme, adding endearingly, "Well, I have. but not many."
We need, then, to make a decision as a nation that we want to pay our nurses more. And this is where the real indictment of the programme lay: we do not seem willing voluntarily to make the necessary sacrifices in the way of bigger taxes. Clive Jenkins, Union Bogeyman No. 1, put it splendidly in the discussion section of the programme. "The national conscience," he said, "responds to scalding hot water." And not much else.
What is it we are asking of our nurses, in return for perhaps half as much pay as a lucky typist, was well shown in a stolid B.B.C.-1 documentary the night before called Nurse, Nurse. Conscientiously it ranged over the whole field from some St. John of God monks (vocation and nothing else) to eighteenr year-olds discussing the nurse and sex (no programme complete without). We did not see a bedpan, though we 'heard a lot about them. What we did see was the task of bathing the mentally sub-normal at perhaps excessive length and with perhaps rather more callous disregard by the cameras than was desirable. Surely another reflection on our society, this choice of what is and what is not suitable for the viewer's eye. What nursing can be at its best came in a sort of postscript from that excellent series, Yesterday's Witness. On Sunday it revived a small forgotten incident of history, the missions to Serbia during the 1914-18 War by various British women's groups. Four elderly ladies told us the story, as it might be teatime chatter complete with little daring jokes.
But what a story it was. These women, some of them "fresh young girls." tackled not only relentless dirt with brisk scrubbing-brushes but rats, sewage, septic wounds, even bodiless heads. They took part in one of those rare heroic peaks of human endeavour, the march of the defeated Serbs across the Albanian mountains to the sea.
And through it all they preserved the simple and high standards of caring for the sick. "Nobody remembers now," said one of the narrators without bitterness. Happily television can remind us of such quiet examples of the heights that ordinary 'human beings can reach.