Heartbeat of a nation

PUBLISHED: 15:33 02 July 2008 | UPDATED: 11:39 12 August 2010

AID: Margaret Bell (eft) dedicated more than 60 years of service to the NHS.

AID: Margaret Bell (eft) dedicated more than 60 years of service to the NHS.

IN the year that the NHS celebrates its 60th birthday, reporter Kate Nelson talks to a former nurse about her experiences of being one of the first to train under the new system,

IN the year that the NHS celebrates its 60th birthday, reporter Kate Nelson talks to a former nurse about her experiences of being one of the first to train under the new system, the brainchild of then Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan....

Born in 1930 in Birkenhead, Merseyside, Margaret Bell, 78, of Cloonmore Avenue, Orpington, could not have imagined that she would dedicate more than 60 years of her life to working in the National Health Service.

Having spent her childhood in India, where her father had been offered a job when she was just two months old, she returned to England in 1946.

She said: "After World War II had ended, nuns at my convent school in Darjeeling showed me pictures of concentration camps. The horrors of that spurred me into a nursing career.

"I was appalled. I asked them how anyone could do this to another human being and I just knew that I had to help."

She began nursing in May 1948, just a few months before the NHS came into existence in July.

"I was one of the guinea pigs who helped work out how it should operate," she said. "When the NHS was first established there was a great feeling in the country. It was a good thing.

"Back in those days, it was a pleasure to work in the system. There was a feeling of everyone working together. People used to stick together and weren't afraid to speak out."

She began her training at Alder Hey Children's Hospital, Liverpool before moving to Whiston Hospital, Merseyside, to complete her State Registered Nursing (SRN).

As a second year student at Whiston, Mrs Bell had a terrifying experience that influenced her career.

She said: "I began treating a cancer patient who had been released from jail serving a life sentence for manslaughter.

"One night as I was sitting at my desk, I suddenly felt hands around my throat and he started to throttle me. It was only that another nurse came back from a meal break that I escaped being killed.

"The next day during an inquiry, it turned out that the man had been sexually and mentally abused by his mother and he later ended up being jailed for killing her boyfriend.

"He had seen women as the root of all his problems in life and that's why he attacked me. However, over the proceeding weeks he got more and more dependent on me and another nurse, we became the only ones who could go near him. When he died, he left us all his money which we could not take, so we left it to the hospital. He also said that we had been the only women he had trusted in his life. Later in my career I researched children who have been abused by their mothers."

Mrs Bell went on to work at Lambeth Hospital for her midwifery training before moving to Hertfordshire and Essex Hospital, Bishops Stortford and later to North Hertfordshire Hospital.

While working as a staff nurse at Orpington Hospital in 1963, where she had worked since 1960, Mrs Bell caught mumps and her doctor advised her to travel abroad for at least a year to recover.

She said: "I saw an advert for nurses in Northern Rhodesia, soon to be Zambia, and had always wanted to go to Africa. I applied and was delighted when I got the job."

While there, her experiences were far removed from her time in the NHS.

"We had to overcome tribal beliefs and the influence that witchdoctors had on people," she said.

"When I was in the city of Kitwe, I met a medical assistant who had a wound on his arm. He was treating it with mud. I was amazed and asked him why. He told me the witchdoctors had prescribed it and refused to listen when I told him he was infecting it.

"I showed him what he should do but he dismissed it as white man's medicine. When it got worse, he finally agreed and after it healed he told me I had powers over the witchdoctors.

"We were later thanked by President Kenneth Kuanda who said he was grateful to the white nursing sisters for breaking down witchdoctor influences."

Mrs Bell is certain that the great variety of cultures she experienced during her childhood in India, and later on in Africa, helped her in her work in the NHS.

When she returned to Orpington Hospital from Africa in 1964, she noticed an influx of nurses from the Carribbean, Indian sub continent and Malaysia.

She said: "Working in the NHS, it doesn't matter what culture you come from or what religion or beliefs you hold, everyone is part of the team and we all used to celebrate each other's festivals, such as Chinese New Year."

But Mrs Bell is more critical of the NHS under the Labour government and believes such caring gestures would be unlikely now.

She said: "It's so different now. The past 10 years have been the worst. Nurses are afraid to speak up about something in case they get the sack. The whole system is under pressure. We might not even have an NHS in the future unless something changes."

Following nearly 40 years in the health service, she retired in 1987 after deciding she needed a complete break from nursing and the medical profession.

She said: "One night I had a dream that all the sisters I had worked with were questioning me and cross examining me.

"They were saying 'we trained you, why have you stopped?' which had a huge effect on me, so I started doing voluntary work for the stroke unit at Queen Mary's in Sidcup."

She has remained at the hospital on various committees and forums since 1994 and is still a member of the Bexley Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) Forum.

She said: "I have many fond moments from my working life. I have enjoyed helping both patients and staff and getting the best out of the NHS. The people I work with now tell me they want me to continue my battleaxe training to do the best for patients and they joke that even when I die they'll have a hotline linked to heaven to ask for my advice.

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