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A Nursing Orderly's Day

Sue Light



A Nursing Orderly’s Day

By Pte. Ward Muir, R.A.M.C. (T.)

3rd London General Hospital

Wandsworth, S.W.

Aug., 1915

My Dear Dick,

Yes, it’s rather a change from one’s ordinary life, but you’re wrong in surmising that I find my new career sad and painful. I wouldn’t minimize the suffering which the mere existence of this hospital implies; the fact remains that I have enjoyed more jokes in the few weeks since I became a Nursing Orderly than in many a long month of peaceful civilisation.

You ask what I do all day long. When I came here to enlist I put the same question to a fellow who paused to chat with me. He said, “Well, sometimes I cut bread and butter, and sometimes I cut patients’ toe-nails.” It was an incomplete statement. He might have added that, engaged on either task or both, he cut his own fingers. At any rate, most of them seemed to have been treated with iodine…. But cutting bread and butter (and other things) is hardly the whole of a Nursing Orderly’s raison d’etre; he is not only parlour-maid and waitress; he is charwoman and messenger boy, bath-chairman, barber, bootblack, window cleaner, bath attendant, gardener, valet, washer-up, and odd man all rolled into one.

Here is my day:

I rise at 5.15 (perhaps), and bath and shave, returning to my hut in time to roll up my bedding, placing it, together with my boots and other possessions, on top of my bedstead so that our “hut keeper,” sweeping the floor, may the more easily push his broom below. At 6 o’clock I am on parade with my 200 comrades, mostly in a somewhat yawnsome and shivery state. Presently we are dismissed to our duties: some to the clerical departments of the hospital, some to the stores, kitchens, dispensary and laboratory, some to dustbins and pails, some to the never-ending labour of keeping the gardens in trim, some to make ready the operating theatres, and some – I am one – to their wards.

My ward, when I enter it, is en deshabille. The night nurse and the night orderly are cleaning up, making beds, washing patients; the more active patients are out of bed, dressing, or already dressed, shaving themselves, or tidying generally. In a ward with twenty patients it is a busy scene, but – except for a moment’s pause for “Good morning” greetings – I have no minutes to waste. I must needs hasten to the kitchen (there is a small kitchen attached to each ward), inspect our stock of bread or eggs or what not, and then rush off to the steward’s store for the first of the day’s provisions – milk, butter and bread. (No light weight, by the by, ten loaves and a big can of milk; I’m not sorry when I can commandeer one of my patients to help me.)

Back at the ward, I cut bread and butter, lay the table, put out trays for patients in bed, boil eggs, and go to the central kitchen to procure a huge canful of tea. By the time the meal is served, and all my family are happily munching, I am ready to flee to the orderlies’ canteen for my own breakfast, at 7.45. This must be snatched, for at 8.30 we have another parade, previous to which I must clean my buttons (Dick, those shiny buttons were invented by a fiend!), polish my boots, straighten up my portion of the hut, and – on Saturday, that day of anxious hustle! – put on puttees and belt for inspection by our C.O.

Immediately after parade I race back to the ward and proceed to tackle the problem of the sheets, towels, etc., for the laundry. Not having been born an expert in differentiating teacloths from dusters and fomentation-wringers, I must needs keep my wits about me; but I assure you I am becoming quite a connoisseur in the matter of distinguishing between pillow and bolster cases and a shirt with a pleat at the back of the neck as compared with one lacking the same. Behold me, then, staggering beneath a tumid white bundle, and shortly returning with the clean duplicate articles received in exchange. Then off for additional stores – eggs, more milk, soda-water, jam, sugar, and on Mondays (from the “Dry Store”) floor polish, metal polish, cleaning rags, matches, blacklead, soap, and soda. Then to the dispensary for lint, bandages, carbolic lotion, methylated spirit, or what not. Then to the knife-cleaner with knives. And, in between each errand, a score of odd jobs in the ward itself, ending, perhaps, with excursions to the operating theatre.

Noon comes like a flash, and we’re in the whirl of fetching and serving dinner, after which the big dinner-tin (a most unwieldy brute of a thing to handle) must be washed – ugh! – and returned, speckles, whence it came, pudding dishes – ugh! ugh! – likewise. Thereafter I help some of my crippled patients to dress, and wheel them out into the grounds or on to the verandah. At 1.15 (I’m often unavoidably later) I sneak off for my own meal, feeling I’ve earned it even if I’m rather too tired to eat it.

Two o’clock prompt: Parade again, and back to the ward. The afternoon spell is supposed to be somewhat slacker, but, personally, I generally find plenty to do. Perhaps there are patients to take to the baths, there is the lawn to mow and the vicinity of the hut to tidy, there are repeated trips to the dispensary, or the fumigator, or the clerical departments, or the X-ray room, or goodness knows what other portion of this labyrinthine machine of ours. Tea must be made ready, then some patient conveyed to the Recreation Room concert in a bath-chair or on a stretcher. By 4.45 or 5 my own tea is not unwelcome: it is often the case that by this time I haven’t sat down – haven’t ceased to be on my feet and generally on the run – for more than, at the outside, half an hour in all since dawn.

On alternate days I have the afternoons off, and go on duty from 5 p.m. to 8. The programme is much the same, except that for supper I have to fetch cocoa from the kitchen.

Is that all? No, Dick, it isn’t all. There are hosts of things I’ve forgotten to mention. But what I’ve chiefly left out, I see, is the human element – the patients, sisters, nurses, and my fellow orderlies, and the doctors. I’ve told you merely what I’ve been doing – but not what they’ve been doing. Some day, perhaps, I’ll try; meanwhile, you must endeavour to imagine lots of other folk as busy as I am, or busier, all the time, simultaneously. Not too busy, though, thank goodness, for growth of camaraderie. It’s the sense of camaraderie – the social side – which I’ve left out.

Of course, I’m very fatigued and footsore, but the reason I’m happy in spite of that is not because I have discovered a sudden fondness for the role of super-housemaid: perhaps not even because I’m helping the helpless. No, it’s chiefly because of the intangible and indescribable something-or-other which I’ve egregiously omitted from this letter – the hospital’s atmosphere of sociability. I used, once, to pick and choose my friends. It’s odd, but I don’t think I shall ever trouble to do so again. Here I’m plumped down in the middle of a certain crowd: I didn’t pick and choose them – I couldn’t if I would. And lo, I find that there’s no need. Everybody is a friend when you only know him. It’s a discovery, Dick. And with it I’ll wind up this screed.

Yours ever, W.



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so busy all the time, i remeber when it was like that for us as student nurses!!!! now it is a different busy.

keep it coming Sue.


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Ward Muir was a journalist and author, and one of the members of the exclusive Chelsea Arts Club who volunteered for service at the hospital, although over age or unfit for general service. His book 'Observations of an Orderly' [a lot more of the same :) ] can be downloaded here:

Observations of an Orderly


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