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A Student Nurse in Wartime England

This story is submitted by Nicki Pozzi of the Windsor District Office. It is from Irene D. Courtenay who was a Nursing Sister and served overseas.

At first there were few changes on our routine following the declaration of war, September 1939. Then, one lovely sunny Sunday afternoon air raid casualties began arriving. Among them was one of our x-ray nurses and her mother. Their house had sustained a direct hit and all that was left standing was the staircase. As I was on duty in the emergency ward, it was my responsibility to help attend to the casualties and admit those who were to be hospitalized. Fortunately, only one stick of bombs had been dropped. They fell on a residential area so the casualties were small in number. All were dazed, and many cut by flying glass for it wasn't until later that the need to tape the windows was established. Over 200 glass particles were removed from one casualty. The particles were small and though painful, were not life threatening.

Student Nurse in Wartime England

From this early beginning, through trial and error, and the experiences of World War I Veterans, our routines emerged. Some were successful and continued, others proved impractical and were discontinued. Among the latter was the policy that all nursing students were to report to the hospital, in full uniform, five minutes after an air raid siren sounded. The impracticality of this policy became evident with the heavy bombing of London, for the planes flew over our area. Air raid alerts started around 9 p.m. and lasted until 6 a.m. Staff, including students, quickly became exhausted, particularly following twelve hour shifts and so the policy was modified. Then there was the extra training . . .

Our hospital was selected as a decontamination center, for the possibility of gas warfare was very real. Training was arduous. Three times a week following our normal twelve hour shifts we were provided with full protective clothing, except for respirators, and so we laboured with lungs complaining for two hours of heavy lifting and full decontamination procedures wearing our allocated civilian gas masks that were not designed for work.

So many experiences, not a normal part of the nursing curriculum. The day our hospital was evacuated to admit patients from a London hospital that had to be evacuated because of the bombings. The night I was temporarily alone in a ward of 44 surgical patients and a huge supply of extra mattresses that were to be used to shield the bed patients during an air raid, for this was in the years before ambulation. We had a severe air raid that night. Bombs dropping, dog fights overhead as the RAF intercepted the enemy planes and shrapnel from the ground artillery weighing in at a hefty 100 lbs. I lifted the mattresses and protected the patients only to have the all clear sound as I reached the last one and my partner returned to duty.

My last day at the hospital was unforgettable. I had finished my training, taken my final written, oral and practical exams and was having a last lunch with my colleagues. We had just started eating when a fierce air raid started. Grabbing an O.R. gown to cover my travel dress and wearing high heeled sandals, I worked from 12 noon to just after 7 p.m. I will never forget my last patient. A young air force air man.

He was one of the last dug out of a bombed out hotel that had been taken over by the RAF. Fortunately, the majority of men were on manoeuvers, or the loss would have been great. This casualty, quiet and uncomplaining, lay still as I tended to his injuries and irrigated his eyes that were full of dust and dirt so that he could see again.

I was one of the nursing sisters on the ill fated S.S. Santa Elena that was torpedoed and sunk en route to Italy. Upon return to England following the Italian campaign I was one of three nursing sisters who escorted a ship load of English war brides and their children to Canada.

I did work for one year in a military hospital upon return to Canada and for the first time in several years saw the partially healed wounds and scars of battle injuries.

IRENE D. COURTENAY R.N., B.ScN, M.P.H., R.C.A.M.C.
Former Lt. Nursing Sister
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