Chris Stewart, (almost) 50 years a nurse


Chris Stewart, Associate Lecturer and Clinical Assessor at the University of Northampton’s Competence Test Centre retires at the end of this month, closing a career in healthcare that started nearly half a century ago.

Chris – originally from Hampshire – qualified as a nurse in December 1974 and here she ‘signs off’ from nursing and her five years at UON by blogging about the many changes she has witnessed over the ensuing decades.

A nurse from the very start

I might have officially ‘become’ back in the 70’s but I knew I was going to be one a long time before that. My Mum bought me a little nurse dressing-up outfit when I was about four. I was too young to remember my reaction today, but she said I loved it and told her it was my best-ever present. Needless to say, I wore it quite a lot!

As I grew up, that feeling of wanting to be a nurse never went away. Even when people told me I’d need to have loads of ‘jabs’ to do the job and stay healthy, it didn’t faze me…I just thought ‘Fine. Bring it on!’

Training days

I officially became a nurse on 3 December 1974 and my title (something you don’t hear said very often these days) was State Enrolled Nurse, or SEN. I was what we now call an Adult Nurse but my training combined a bit of all of the four main fields of nursing: adult, paediatrics (children and young people’s) and mental health including learning disability.

We didn’t have degrees in nursing in the early 1970’s, like those we have at UON now. There were some similarities though – we started with class-based learning (anatomy and physiology) and were exposed to lots of ‘on the job’ experience right from the beginning of our course. We had to have a go at basic care practice such as washing, dressing, and feeding people – and we had to use each other to practice! Clinical nurse tutors visited us regularly on the wards to sign off our competencies in our syllabus manual after assessment.

A nurse never forgets the first patient she treats, and this is true for me even after all these years. He was an older gentleman who’d had a stroke and I was asked to take him off a commode to clean him. I was 18 and I thought “What on earth do I do here?! Oh, get on with it!” That was my initiation and afterwards, I thought “Well Chris, this is your life!”

It was a bit like an apprenticeship as we ‘earned while we learned’ and I was paid £30 a month which wasn’t much, and this was after my board had been taken off (all of us students had to live on-site at the hospital), but it was my first proper wage so I was very proud to have it.

Carry On Nurse! Memories of mistakes and matron

People think the Carry On films that are set in hospitals are just silly comedies, but they are actually quite realistic – take it from someone who worked in the NHS then!

Firstly, ‘Sister’ (the senior nurse in charge of all aspects of the ward) really could be as tyrannical as Hattie Jacques’ Matron. You did as you were told, and you were addressed by your surname only. Nursing practice was very much based on cultural norms, ways of doing things that were handed down from previous generations of nurses. There was little evidence-based practice and changing the accepted way of doing things was frowned upon. Intuitive practice could get you into trouble.

Consultants were also very rigid; everything stopped when they came to do their twice weekly ward rounds. They never spoke to the nurses, only to Sister who’d cascade information down to you – we were ordered into the linen cupboard ‘to tidy it up’ so we were not seen or heard. This meant that patient care was interrupted, as the patients had to be in bed ready to be seen by the Consultant and team of doctors.

My most embarrassing moment was very early on in my career. I had stacked a load of bedpans – the old heavy, metal type – all of them ‘used’ and as I wheeled the trolley out of the ward, it went awry, spilling the bedpans and their contents with the loudest noise on the ward floor. To make things worse and for extra comedy value this happened about five minutes before visiting time – so all of the patients’ families were outside ready to come in and peering through the window as they heard and saw everything!

In 1997, I gained my Level 1 Registration Adult Nursing, by being successfully seconded by my place of work through the local university and which I financed myself.

Finishing at UON….and a top tip for nursing students

I have worked at many hospitals over the years and also for the British Red Cross Society. I have resided in Northampton for 20 years and I have been associated with the university of Northampton after leaving the NHS five years ago to become a Clinical Assessor at the Competence test Centre and an Associate Lecturer in the Nursing team.

The only career regret I have is that I didn’t start lecturing sooner because I absolutely love it! I really enjoy giving back my experiences to our students, helping them learn in a way they can relate to. I do not like things to be too ‘textbook’ heavy, good teaching for me is telling and showing things in an informative and fun way.

For example, a lot of student nurses implicitly believe there should be no bubbles at all when administering medicine with an injection. That is not correct – in fact, it is more or less impossible to achieve that – so I explain to them: “Nothing bigger than a champagne bubble!”

It always gets a laugh and, I hope, is something they will always remember, whether caring for their patients or when they have a celebratory tipple!

It is my view, nursing values of the past share many similarities of the present and indeed the future. As nursing practice continues to evolve, nurses will always be highly skilled professionals.

Next steps

My last day of work ever is 31 December but, even though I will always be a nurse at heart, that will be it from me. My nursing registration expires in January, so it is definitely the right time to say fond farewells and leave the world of work. If I don’t do that, I’ll never stop and to be a nurse you need to fully committed and I won’t have the time to do it justice.

The majority of time my time, my husband and I will be spending between our home in the Loire Valley in France and here in Northampton. In France we are right in the middle of the best wine region in the world, which is quite handy because we do like a glass every now and then! We’ll be jetting back and forth to the UK, quite literally, as we also have our own plane and both have experience of flying, although my husband is usually in the pilot’s seat. Flying is such an amazing, intense experience, you’re in control, and have to think about nothing else. All your worries and stresses go away. I’ll certainly raise a glass to a few more years of that!