Book review: Yes Sister, No Sister by Jennifer Craig

Dedication, dedication, dedication...

Life as a trainee nurse in 1950s Yorkshire was unimaginably tough...strict discipline, long hours and lots of bodily fluids!

Jennifer Craig’s entertaining memoir of her years at Leeds General Infirmary takes us back to an era when ‘Sister’ ruled the wards with a rod of iron, orders had to be obeyed and laughter was strictly forbidden.

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But friendships forged under adversity are often the strongest and so there was also a warm sense of camaraderie which involved late-night study sessions, sneaked trips to the cinema and escapades with young trainee doctors.

Craig’s trip down memory lane is a tribute to the resilience and loyalty of the nursing profession, as well as a candid and amusing account of the highlights and hardships of life on the wards of a city hospital.

Her career began on a chilly day in December 1952 when she reported for duty in a thin cotton nursing dress with an uncomfortable starched collar and a cap that she could make neither head nor tail of.

On the forbidden list were jewellery, make-up, cardigans and laughter; on the must list was a willingness ‘to make nursing your whole life.’

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It was a daunting prospecting for a bunch of mainly 18 to 20-year-old girls, particularly after a warning from Sister that most of them would ‘prove to be unsuitable’.

Undeterred, Craig set about her training with enthusiasm, learning the science of making a bed, the importance of personal hygiene, the art of dressing a festering wound without feeling sick and perishing the thought that she can hope to change the world.

The wards were a legacy of the era of Florence Nightingale, spacious, high-ceilinged cathedral-like rooms with tall windows and an emphasis on fresh air and space.

Nurses were expected to say ward prayers, cook light meals for patients, keep beds and belongings spotlessly clean, empty bedside ashtrays and remove rubbish.

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In between they learned how to survive night shifts, lay out dead bodies, juggle test tubes over Bunsen burners and work in the operating theatre.

There were frustrations – bullying by sisters and having no real social life – but there were the compensations of the antics of housemen, the earthy humour of the patients, the pride in one’s competence and, above all, the delight in making sick people feel better.

In 1961, Craig emigrated to Canada where she still lives but her affectionate and humorous story is testament to the corner of her heart that still dwells in the lofty corridors of Leeds General Infirmary.

(Ebury Press, paperback, £6.99)