Book review: Matron Knows Best by Joan Woodcock

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‘Flippin’ ‘eck,’ thought 16-year-old Lancashire girl Joan Woodcock back in 1966, ‘I’m going to be a real nurse!’

It’s over 40 years now since nursing cadet Joan stood trembling with nerves outside matron’s office at Blackburn Royal Infirmary.

During those four decades, Joan’s career took her from busy hospital casualty and geriatric units to austere prison clinics, GP surgeries and the distressing work of Lancashire Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) centre at Royal Preston Hospital.

From Blackburn to Blackpool, Lytham St Annes to Wythenshawe near Manchester, she has witnessed operations and amputations, made up thousands of beds, mopped miles of floors, offered unstinting care and comfort and, as a Marie Curie nurse, helped patients to die in peace.

She has also been shocked and terrified, felt guilt and anger, laughed and cried, but never once regretted joining the nursing profession.

Happily retired and living on the Fylde coast, Joan’s harrowing, hair-raising and sometimes hilarious story is a classic and inspiring memoir, a window onto another age which she dresses with brilliant anecdotes, wise commentary and immense common sense.

When the teenager from working-class stock turned up on her first day with the regulation pen, torch and pair of scissors, she was beginning her working life in hospitals run under the now-defunct matron system.

Matron, usually an unmarried career nurse, ruled the roost; she was responsible for all nursing and domestic staff and in charge of every aspect of patient care.

She ensured the hospital ran like clockwork, that the wards gleamed like new pins and that patients were properly fed and cared for.

It was a world many of today’s graduate nurses wouldn’t recognise...one in which the patient came first, strict discipline ruled the wards, cleanliness was king, instructions were obeyed without question and the sick were treated with respect and dignity at all times.

Joan first set her sights on being a nurse when she was four and had her tonsils removed in hospital in her home town of Blackburn. She pictured herself gently holding the hands of a few sickly people and mopping the occasional brow.

She did all that, of course, and a myriad of other tasks that she could never have imagined in her wildest dreams - or nightmares!

Joan’s incredible stories are not for the faint-hearted or the squeamish; there are horrific injuries, enough body fluids to fill a giant vat, vagrants infested with maggots, lice and rats, events of high drama and moments of comic madness.

Joan witnessed many changes over the years and some were for the better - senior nurses were allowed to marry without being forced to postpone or abandon their careers and the notorious split shift system was abandoned.

But other changes were not so good and Joan mourns the introduction of nursing degrees, political correctness within the NHS, lack of hospital cleanliness, increased paperwork, falling standards and a shortage of care and compassion.

Life-saving miracles are now regularly performed in hospitals, she says, but ‘patients still require good nursing. At some point along the line, this seems to have been forgotten’.

(Headline, hardback, £12.99)