12 May 2020

42 years as a nurse in Southampton

Karen Mitchell has worked at University Hospital Southampton for close to 42 years.

I trained in Southampton in 1977 and never really had a break except for when I had my children.

I always knew that I either wanted to be a teacher or a nurse. When I turned 18 I applied to nursing, and only retired five years ago. I missed it so much that I came back as Bank Staff for Southampton Children’s Hospital.

When I first trained it was very formal. In the front of the hospital there were long Nightingale, 25-bedded wards. They were knocked down in the 1980’s, but we worked in them as students, and when consultants came and did their ward rounds, you had to stand up with your hands folded in front of you.

We had to make sure the ward was spotless, the beds aligned, the wheels facing away from the door, and the opening part of the pillow away from the door. Then the patients all had to be sat up in bed, and there couldn’t be anyone in the toilet. Only then would the consultant walk around.

There was no privacy in those days. They would discuss everything all the way around. That was what it was like. And you could never call anyone by first name, it was so strict.

We had a national uniform when I first trained which was like a j-cloth! We wore paper hats, but they went by the time I finished my training, and we used to have capes to wear when it was cold. I even used to live on site in the old nurses home across from the emergency department, in room 99!

I kind of fell into children’s nursing. In the 1980’s when I graduated, I had three department choices I could work in but chose child health, and I’ve been here ever since! The mid 1980’s was when everything started getting more relaxed.

Child playing

When Piam Brown ward, treating children with cancer, opened in the late 80s, I did night duty for a few years while my children were small, then worked on the ward on both day and night shifts.

Over the last 30 years, I have seen first-hand how the treatment for cancer has changed. We introduced more day treatments and so some children can come in for treatment and go home the same day.

The treatment may have changed significantly, but the supportive care has too. We make them poorly with chemotherapy drugs, but then help them feel better through their recovery afterwards.

It is much easier now there are the specialist areas – it reflects how times have changed. It has definitely improved the child’s quality of life, and kept them at home with their family. Having dedicated units, with specialist people, really does make a huge difference.

I like that you get to know the patients really well. You see them at the worst of times, and at the best of times when they are cured hopefully. Obviously not everyone has that outcome, but more children survive now than when I started nursing.

It is really nice for the parents to still see a familiar face. There was this one child who I looked after the day she was diagnosed about 10 years ago. She was this dear little thing and so sweet. I cared for her the day she came in and throughout her treatment.

She came in one day really poorly while I was on a night shift. I went down to intensive care with her but she died that night. I was holding her hand as she passed away, and her parents were there supporting her too.

They later wrote me a lovely letter to say thank you for being there at the start and end, and they said they would be forever grateful for this. To be a part of their daughter’s journey was an honour. It is not just being there for the patient, but also for the family.

It is sad, but in this specialism, it is the reality of the job. You never forget the children, whether they survive or die.

Piam Brown ward had a major refurbishment in 2016 thanks to a £500,000 investment by Southampton Hospitals Charity. We were well resourced, but the environment was tired and old. The environment just didn’t match up to other newly refurbished units or hospitals.

Now, our teenager and school room has had a facelift, the parents sitting room had a spruce, and our day treatment area is incredible. Beside every child’s bed area is a pull down bed for parents to stay with the children, and these all include a toilet and shower in every room. This is important as they can be here for long periods of time and so need their own space.

It is a joy to work here, and we are very proud of it. This is our unit.

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