Sunday, March 3, 2024

BAJAN TO DE BONE: When Dorothy caught the nursing bug


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DOROTHY HARDING spent her life caring for the sick. Now 80 and not enjoying the best of health, it is her time to be cared for and caregivers must watch out because she knows what their job ought to be.

The trained nurse belongs to an era when the nursing profession was considered elite and Barbadian nurses functioned under the strict supervision of nursing Sisters and instructors from Britain, the “mother country”.

She became a nurse in a pre-independent Barbados and in an interview with the SUNDAY SUN at the Harts Gap, Christ Church home last week she said: “I trained at the old General Hospital. Nursing back in those days was very different from today for sure.”

The Barbados General Hospital as the island’s lone public hospital, a complex comprising blocks of two-storeyed buildings stretched across the length of Jemmotts Lane. There, nurses worked “hard”, putting in long hours.

“You had to be dedicated and it could be rigid in the discipline. You worked very hard on the wards. The work day started at 6:30 a.m. you had two hours’ break and you went back on the wards and you came off duty around 7:30 at night. The night shift was from 7 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.

“We had to live in residence for five years in the Nightingale Nurses Home. In that day most of the staff were English. The nursing staff, the matron was English and the sisters, there were no black sisters at that time, it was only around 1954 that we had our own Sisters and Miss Ena Walters – she was the first black matron.”

Dorothy was born in King Street, Bridgetown, attended Westbury Primary School, which in the day started at 10 in the morning. But school was only after she had gone to her regular “private lessons” at 7 a.m., supplementary “schooling” that was the norm for many children of her day. Like so many other Barbadian girls back then, she was sent to learn needlework after finishing “Seventh Standard” (class seven) at school.

But needlework was not her cup of tea. Nursing was the lure and she went to the Barbados General Hospital to be trained.

Nursing was to become Dorothy’s life. She joined the profession in the days when the regulations forced a woman to choose between being a nurse or a wife and settled for the one in which she had already found satisfaction.

“I did not get married,” she said, explaining that “in those days if you married you would have to leave. A lot of people ask me why I never got married, but nurses and teachers had to leave the [Government] service if they got married.”

Instead she spent her days training in the hospital with lectures given in a lecture room by a Sister-tutor from England – one of the “stern and military-like” teachers, as she recalled.

“I can still see one of them now, tall. She was stern and if the lecture began at eight you had to be there at eight. If you came five minutes late, the door was shut and you could knock till the cows came home she would just tell you ‘get away from that door’.”

Nurses lived on the hospital compound most of the time. “You could go home on evenings but you had to be back by a certain hour and if you wanted to stay out later you had to have permission for that,” Dorothy said.

She describes an institution which preceded the modern-day Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where “old time” treatments were the norm; where gentian violet painted wounds cleansed with a saline solution of salt and water; where Epsom salts was administered as a diuretic, and Glycerin used a lot to draw out inflammation.

Patients in public wards could not have visitors every day, only those on pay wards could. Visits to the general wards were permitted “only about twice a week”, and through ticket only, with two tickets allowed per patient.

Those visits were heavily supervised because, Dorothy said, “Visitors brought in things they should not bring in and we would have the trouble after the visitors left.” Visitors also left an abundance of fruit and coconut water behind for their sick relatives and friends.

“There was the Tercentenary Pay Ward where the patients paid $3 a day and Pay Ward A and Pay Ward E. They were five shillings a day,” Dorothy remembers.

She worked at the Barbados General Hospital for ten years, five of them as a staff nurse. She also did midwifery at Verona, the maternity hospital of the day, located at Bank Hall, St Michael.

But at age 28, she seized the opportunity to expand her nursing horizons beyond Barbados and left for Canada in 1955 to take advantage of opportunities being offered to nurses from the Caribbean. Sixteen years later, with more professional training and wider experience, she returned to Barbados. The St Philip District Hospital could only hold her for about a year, before a new and challenging area of nursing beckoned.

Dorothy took the job as supervisor of the Lazaretto, the institution that housed and treated leprosy victims. She found herself heading an institution where the call on her skills required a paradigm shift.

There were nine residents – two women and seven men – as well as outpatients.

“There was a lot of stigma surrounding leprosy” she said, “and I had to have a different approach, because those patients needed a different kind of approach and some of them who were so disfigured, sometimes their own family would abandon them and not visit them.” Their support came primarily from the Lazaretto’s nursing staff and the assistance given by the Friends of the Lazaretto.

“Some of those lepers were very bitter but we tried to do things for them. I managed to get a van from the Ministry of Health and they went to Farley Hill one day. We had a lovely day,” Dorothy said.

Once she drove one of them to St Lucy to see his family. On another occasion she took one of the women to St Philip “to see my nephew’s farm”.

The grateful lepers had not gone outside the walls which shielded them daily from public eyes and behind which they no doubt felt protected.

Dorothy managed to persuade the authorities to give her a staff nurse. She also got a few “special nurses who were not really trained,” but she asked the tutor at the Tercentenary School of Nursing “to take them and give them a little training”.

Dorothy was supervisor of the Lazaretto from 1973 to 1987.

As Barbados approaches its 50th anniversary of Independence this proud Barbadian has dusted off the picture albums to sit and relive memories of events throughout her nursing career. In particular, she pores over photographs of the Independence celebration dinner hosted in Toronto, and recites the poem she wrote in 1966 in tribute to an independent Barbados.

She said: “When I heard Barbados was going to be independent and when I heard the National Anthem, I just got goosebumps. I felt this surge of pride. I really did. It was so beautiful.”


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