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Brackenwood Memoirs – Episode 2

Brackenwood Memoirs – Chapter 2

Note to Readers – This is the second episode of the Brackenwood Memoirs, a fictional diary of an 18-yr old starting her career as a Nurse for the ‘Mentally Handicapped’ – that was the then term for people with learning disabilities. Terminology in the story is of its time. Episode 1 can be found on this site. Feel free to comment and share. Do note – this is ficion, based on actual experiences, any resemblance to anyone living or dead is totally coincidental. This is not my autobiography but some of my experiences form part of Maddy’s story.

 Diary of Maddy Johnson (18)      August 8th

Whew! I’m obviously not very good at diary-writing – seeing as how a whole week has gone by and I haven’t managed to write another thing. In my defence (I don’t why I feel the need to defend myself, but I do!), I should say that I’ve been really busy. There has been so much to do to get ready – only 5 weeks to go now! I can hardly believe I am actually getting out of this village at last. I thought it was going to be ‘game-over’ for me when I couldn’t finish my A levels and University therefore became off the cards. Not that I wanted all that work – no way – or to be stuck in the 6th form at Mouldsworth Grammar School (even though it was co-ed in that last year – which I missed out on totally when I left to try Business Studies at Harlington FE College – what was I thinking of?!?!?)

No, I was just sad that I wasn’t going to be able to escape this little life and wriggle out of my mother’s clutches – she of the ‘I-know-what’s-good-for-you-Madeleine’ attitude! Which she so definitely doesn’t – know what’s good for me I mean. She just wants to squeeze me into her own failed ambitions, she does. I know that, because Gran told me. She wanted to be a teacher and she had to leave school early and do office work – at 14, bless her. Well, Mum, sorry, but you can’t live your life through me. I would gladly have been a teacher but it turned out I don’t like kids! Babysitting for Sarah and Bobby Benson has definitely taught me that one – even if looking after my foul little sisters and brothers hadn’t already shown me that most children are totally gross!!

So, this nursing course at Brackenwood is definitely something of a life-saver. I will be off in five weeks from now to start my new life. No stopping me! It isn’t Uni, but neither is it living here in Dullsville!!

Lots of things have happened in a few days. I got home from the interview on July 27th– more about that soon, dear Diary – and less than a week later I had the offer letter for the September intake in my hand!! A day later I got my Occupational Health Declaration which took hours to fill in – they seemed to want to know every single illness I have had since birth, which meant interrogating the Mother who was decidedly awkward about it all. That done and posted off, next letter to arrive was the offer of accommodation. I have a place in the Burwood Lodge – Female Nurses’ Home at Brackenwood, which I got to see on my visit and it looked fine to me – quite a grand building actually. Everyone has their own room and about 12 people share the toilets and bathrooms.  Can’t be any worse than here – sharing the toilet with 3 stinky brothers and two sisters – all of whom take far more hot water than they should and let the bath water out when there’s no more hot in the immersion tank, which is so annoying! And they never flush the toilet and leave their business for all to see!!

For that honour, of having my own room on site – I have to pay £11.50 per month, out of my salary – which Dad has worked out for me, will be about £100, so I will still have a fortune every month to live on. The meals in the Staff canteen are reasonable apparently or we can use the kitchen to cook for ourselves. There are ‘fridges and freezers and downstairs there is a laundry room. It will be just amazing – independence at last!

So, as belated Birthday present, Gran and Granddad have bought me a suitcase. I love it! It’s bright blue and it will fit all the clothes I’m taking. My covers and towels and other things will have to go in boxes in the car. Dad is taking me on the day – we’re going up on September 15th, which is the day before Introductory Training Block starts. That will give me time to look round the Nurses’ Home and get unpacked and sorted out. I can’t wait.

Anyway, I need to say something about the Interview Day – before I forget it all. I wrote last time about the awful Oily man in the white coat and poor Barry Battersby who was cruelly dragged off back to somewhere by Oily and his mate Baldy and an evil looking Nurse. Then I met Vera Rosthorne, who I thought was Matron or something, but turned out to be the top person in the School of Nursing. I got chapter and verse about the Hospital off her and then a lovely cup of tea from the Secretary while I was waiting. As I was drinking this tea in the School waiting area, a small group of people mostly my sort of age wandered in. It turned out that they were second-year students. One of them, a girl who looked about 19 or 20, asked me if I was there for interview.

“I am actually, yes. What’s it like here?” I didn’t mention the Barry incident to them; I wanted to hear what they had to say first.

“Not bad as far as these sorts of places go really,” answered the girl, “We’re all just going into our second year and we haven’t been scared off anyway!”

“Have you worked in a Hospital before?” this was asked by an older woman, probably around 40. “Because it can be something of a shock to the system if you haven’t. You will get used to it though, but you need to prepare yourself.” She looked at me sympathetically. I didn’t find it reassuring actually – instead it got me worried about what I might be letting myself in for. The first girl obviously noticed my discomfort and chipped in.

“Carol, you’re getting her worried now!”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to make you anxious. It’s just – well, if you haven’t been inside a long-stay hospital, where there are so many people who are very highly dependent and severely handicapped…Well, it can be disturbing. But, we all look out for one another, don’t we? And you’ll be fine. The residents are nearly all absolutely brilliant.”

There were lots of nods and affirming noises from the others at this and to be honest, everyone in the group did look friendly so I started to relax more. I wanted to ask lots of questions, but at this point, a very tall bloke with the freckliest face I have ever seen in my entire life approached us, asking for Miss Madeleine Johnson and I had to say my goodbyes as I was to be taken off on a tour of the Hospital before my interview.

“Good luck!” said Carol, as I stood to go, “We’ll look out for you next intake; you’ll enjoy it, honestly”

As we left the School, the bloke introduced himself properly as Mr Adswood, a Nursing Tutor. “I hope they weren’t telling you scary stories”

“Not at all. They were actually saying that it was a friendly place – but that it can be overwhelming if you haven’t been in a Hospital like this before.”

“That’s very fair,” he answered, guiding me along a covered outdoor-corridor that seemed to join up dozens of buildings. “I gather you don’t have any hospital experience. You will probably find it very different than anywhere you’ve ever been before. Brackenwood was originally built as an asylum, one of several developed in Lancashire back them to house, what were then termed, Mental Defectives. They had started to build asylums like these in the 1800s and they very quickly started to overflow, so more had to be built. Before it was able to open, however, the Great War broke out and it was used as a Military Hospital, particularly for those recovering from more severe head injuries. There used to be a railway station in the middle of the grounds – right where the Patient’s Social Club is now. There would have been around 60,000 soldiers here at one point. In fact, many patients with severe shell-shock remain here to this day – having been unable to return to everyday life and play a full part. Following the war, it opened formally as a County Asylum in July 1920. It was actually designed by Henry Littler, who designed most of the northern asylums. It’s what is called a Dual Pavilion style. These buildings we’re seeing now,” he pointed to the left with his arm, “are the original Asylum buildings. Pavilions linked by these external corridors. Designed as two wards per building, one on the ground and one above, they were intended to accommodate around 40 patients but very soon would house up to 60.”

I could hardly take this in. I mean, I could see it was a huge place, but 60,000! My mind was racing – were there that many people still here? Were they all mentally handicapped? I couldn’t get my head round this at all. Mr Adswood could see my confusion; he smiled.

“You might have heard of the Mental Deficiency Act?”

Yes, I thought that was what Brian had talked about when he was explaining about Mental Handicap Hospitals. “Was that 1913? Someone told me that because of it lots of people were locked up in hospitals because they couldn’t be looked after by their families any longer.”

“That’s about right. There were already Lunatic Asylums in existence – places liked the Bethlem and Maudsley in London. As well as Workhouses, many of them built in Victorian times. But as towns became more industrialised and more people were going out of the home to work, there were those who were unable to be cared for. So these Institutions were built and the 1913 Act was the legislative framework for those who needed care or who might be at risk of harm or may be at risk of harming others. Sadly and horrifyingly these days, the legislation also meant that women who had babies outside marriage and had no financial support could be labelled as ‘moral defectives’ and they could be confined in these places – along with their children in many cases. Some of those families remain are still living here now, as patients. Those huge numbers in the war were highly unusual – every bit of space was needed for recovering soldiers. Once it became an asylum, numbers settled down. In the sixties, at its fullest, there were 2,400 patients – residents is the term we now use. Nowadays, there are approximately 1,800 and that number will continue to fall, as admissions are decreasing and resettlement into the community starts to grow. There’s been a new piece of legislation in recent years that has been really important with regards to institutions and how we care for people – the 1959 Mental Health Act, which basically decrees that no one can be forcibly locked what for the simple reason of being mentally handicapped. But you’ll learn all about that when you start training.”

I looked around me. I could see a group of four or five women coming towards me on the corridor. It was difficult to tell their ages, but I reckon they ranged between 30 and 70. Two nurses were with them, wearing the same blue uniform I had seen on the harridan earlier on. I braced myself, wondering how these two would speak to their charges. One of the women was having difficulty walking; she looked to be the eldest in the group. Her grey hair was curly and looked freshly done and she was wearing a pale-blue floral patterned dress, buttoned up the front. All looked well except she had white pumps on her feet with knee-length socks. Apart from that odd garb, she could have been anyone’s grandmother.

“Florrie, what’s the matter with your foot, eh beautiful?” one of the nurses asked her. She spoke with a continental accent – possibly Spanish, I thought. She was tiny but rotund, olive-skinned with thick, black hair scraped into a bun at the back of her head.

“It’s me toes, Nurse Crotchetta” I think that’s what she called her, anyway! “I need to go to the Foot Clinic.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow. I take you. Poor darling. Come on, you take my arm. I help you” She turned to her colleague, who was darker skinned, possibly Indian, I thought. “Jan, can you get Vi please?” nodding to one of the ladies in the group” – she be off if we not careful!” For some reason, she started to laugh loudly and the other woman took the arm of the woman who was obviously Vi and chivvied her along, singing to her.

There was much about this scene that was strange. Grown women in socks and pumps. One of them had a long grey pony tail and was carrying a teddy-bear which she was chattering away to and occasionally hitting. Another apparently blind, her blank eyes rolling upwards in her head, that she slowly shook from side to side, as if listening to the air for clues – she was clinging on to one of the nurses, and humming a tune as she shuffled along. She was wearing a dress that was just a little too bright to be right for the day and it hung way below her knees. The final one looked to be the youngest. She had incredibly rosy cheeks and had the roundest eyes – like saucers. Her blond hair was in pigtails with huge yellow ribbons. Again, the whole ensemble was just not quite right – just a little odd.

But there was also much about the scene that cheered me. The nurses had both spoken kindly to the women; they were clearly looking after them; protecting them. What a difference to Oily and Baldy! Maybe it was a female thing?

Mr Adswood turned us into one of the pavilion buildings at this point, as the group of women passed us; the nurses greeting us as they did. He stopped at the doorway – before a huge wooden panelled door.

“So this corridor links all the wards on South Avenue. It used to be called the Female Corridor, for obvious reasons”. I obviously looked quizzical so he went on to explain. “After the Asylum was completed it operated almost as two separate institutions under the direction of a Medical Director. This was the Female side and on the other side of the asylum was the Male side – now the North Avenue. This side was supervised by the Matron and the Male side by the Chief Male Nurse. And that’s how it was until just a few years ago. Gradually, we’re mixing that up, as you will see. However, there are no barriers to men and women mixing socially now at all. Quite a change actually.”

Again, something to blow my mind. Men and women not allowed to mix with one another! He also told me that there was a wall right down the middle of the hospital to prevent mixing. In the sixties they started to have dances in the Ballroom, which I learned was in the central buildings between these corridors – and the men and women were brought from their respective wards and ‘permitted’ to dance with each other, under the strict supervision of the nursing staff. Then at the end of the night – at the late hour of 6.30pm, they were all escorted back to their wards. Torture! What a way to treat human beings!

“Ah, yes, but they were terrified of ‘unfortunate breeding accidents’, you see. One of the reasons people with disabilities were locked away, if we’re honest, was because society was afraid of what might happen if they had children. What would they look like? Could these ‘defects’ be passed on through the generations? There was also this deep-rooted belief that people such as these had no moral compass – that they would ‘mate’ with anyone. So much ignorance.” He looked very sad and I decided there and then that I liked him.

Behind the door we had stopped at was Ward 8, North Ave. “It used to be C block at one time,” the Sister told me. I was amazed she was in charge – she couldn’t have been more than 30, and she wasn’t wearing a uniform, but then, I noticed, neither were several of the other staff on the ward. What had I expected? Rows of beds? With people like Barry Battersby tied to them? What I found was completely different. I’ll describe it in as much detail as I can.

There was a wide corridor behind the door that seemed to go a long way back, but there were glass doors about halfway along labelled “9, North Avenue”, so this ground floor obviously housed 2 wards. On the right hand side of the corridor at our end was a glass and wood panelled door which led into a wide, spacious, high-ceilinged room – windows on both sides making it light and airy and rather pleasant. The floor was carpeted, in swirly golds and ambers, and the walls were papered in soft yellows and apricots. Large reclining chairs were set in groups of threes and fours on each side of the room, with small coffee tables between them. I think I counted 16 chairs in all. On most of them was sitting a woman. Again, there was a whole range of ages. Some, I would guess, were in their seventies, possibly one or two older than that. But at least three of them looked to be very young – one must surely have been a teenage and the other two could not have been more than 25. Each of them had limbs that were twisted or contracted in some way, and most looked as if they were unable to move very much. One or two appeared to be moving in a jolting, uncontrolled way and one seemed to be sliding down out of her chair.

“Goodness me, Sandra Bailey! Are you going dancing?” the ward sister, who I had been introduced to me as Barbara Hattersly, scoped this tiny frame from  the bottom of the chair, just before she reached the carpet and lifted her deftly into a more comfortable and much safer position, propped up by cushions. She laughed and chatted to Sandra as she did so, who clearly was responding to her in her own unique way.

I found myself very touched by what I was seeing. I was confounded as to how it had come to be that so many people with disabilities had been herded together in this place, yet the care I could see being given was gentle and humane. It made me feel somewhat uncomfortable that they were all here – together – in this strange place, yet I found myself wanting to take part in it. Perhaps it wasn’t right that these places had come to be – but they were here and the people living here – residents I learned they were each to be called – had a right to decent care given to afford dignity. I was witnessing this now and I realised I could do this work.

Barbara Hattersley told me all about 8, North Ave. Up until two years ago, 8 and 9 had been one ward – like many of the others in the pavilions. They had all been split into two on each floor now. 8, North Ave was home to sixteen women between the age of 18 and 74. “Sandra is one of the youngest at 21, aren’t you, darling?” I learned that Gracie, a white-haired lady in another group of chairs was the eldest and had lived at Brackenwood since 1947, just after the War. She had come from another institution before that – having been put into care when she was a small child. “Every one of our residents has some degree of cerebral palsy as well as mental handicap. This is a High Dependency/ Physical Handicap ward. That’s how the wards are classified – High and Low Dependency, which depends on how much care they need. Then there’s Children, Adolescents, Geriatrics, Severe Behaviours, Psychiatric.  As a student nurse, you’ll need to do all the different categories for your practice before you qualify. And of course, the Day and Training Centres.”

I found myself looking forward to working on her ward. I couldn’t say the same for the next stop on our tour though – 15, South Ave – however! It was like walking into a madhouse! Oh dear, maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it was just so noisy! And no sense of order at all. Mr Adswood led the way and we walked through the main door onto a corridor again, but this time as the door opened to the right of us, we were met by what seemed to be pandemonium. Around 20 or so youngish men were clamouring around a tea-trolley from which two male nurses, both in white coats again, were serving cups of tea. The tea being poured from the pot appeared to have milk in it already and the residents were trying to grab the teas as fast as they were pouring it. The male staff looked to be not much older than me and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. They were clearly harassed and out of their depth. Mr Adswood looked as if he very much regretted bringing me onto the ward, but then we all heard a loud, clear voice above the cacophony.

“Gentlemen, if you please!!” A very dark-skinned man appeared from an office at the end of the ward – he was tall and imposing (and very good looking, I must add!!) “This is not acceptable behaviour, is it? Where are your manners? Let’s form an orderly queue, if you please” And he moved quietly and authoritatively towards the group who were desperately trying to get their tea. As one, they appeared to dissolve and reshape into something almost like a queue, although with lots of murmuring and shuffling. The tall man gave a few more directions to the young, white-coated men and then turned, with a huge smile towards us.

“Visitors? Lovely to meet you. I’m Charge Nurse Mike Abubakar – yes, I know that’s a mouthful,” he grinned, “it’s Nigerian. So, you’re wanting to be a Student Nurse, eh? Good for you! I trained here too and qualified in 1970 and rose to the rank of Charge Nurse very quickly. This ward is home to 30 male residents – all of whom range between 22 and 85. They’re all severely mentally handicapped – but they can do a lot for themselves – most can dress and feed themselves – they can go to the toilet, although there are a lot of accidents.” I saw that his gaze went over to a male nurse helping a shuffling elderly man towards one of the doors in the ward and I noticed the man’s trousers were clearly urine-stained. I felt embarrassed for the man. Mike Abubakar shrugged. “Sometimes we can prevent the accidents with reminders and persuasion. But not every time sadly.”

He went on to tell me more about the ward; how it was classed as Low Dependency and was a training ward, so I was likely to be allocated there at some point. “We see little violence, towards staff anyway. Although the boys have lots of scuffles between them.” He nodded towards a man who looked to be in this forties, sitting rocking, making a strange growling noises and biting his own hand. I winced at the savagery of his biting – the flesh was scarred badly; it was clearly something he did frequently. “Kevin takes out his frustration on himself. A lot of them do. If he can’t communicate something or he’s thwarted in some way – like now, having to wait for this tea – he’ll retreat to hand-biting.” He went over to where Kevin was rocking. “Kevin, come on now,” he spoke to the rocking, biting man, “Stop that, eh? Let’s get some tea, shall we?” And he leaned into Kevin, taking his arm and began to guide him towards the trolley. Kevin allowed himself to be guided, “Tea, tea”, he was chanting. I couldn’t help note that his mouth looked so dry – scabbed and flaky. He was obviously really thirsty – no wonder he was desperate for this tea.

Back out on the link corridor, Mr Adswood explained more. “The young man we saw who was biting his hand – you may have noticed the dryness of his mouth? Side effects of drugs, I’m afraid. He’ll likely be on major tranquillisers – like Largactil – and anticonvulsants for his epilepsy – they do cause chronic dry mouth problems, among other things.”

I was thinking about the smell of the place. There had been the aroma of cleaning fluids permeating the air, but that was obviously fighting to cover other odours – urine I suspected, if there were regular ‘accidents’. There were other smells combining to make this distinctive ‘fragrance’ though – male sweat, cooked vegetables, something greasy too that I couldn’t identify. I was trying to explain to Mr Adswood.

“It’s the unique scent of institutions, I’m afraid. Of many bodies living together in one place. The traces of excrement and secretions of every kind mingled with soaps, laundry detergents, food of various kind and the lotions and potions that are used to soothe and heal.” He inhaled the fresh air of the corridor. “You don’t think you’ll ever get used to it, but you will. It’s more noticeable on some wards than others, but it’s always there – even if very faint in some places. It will cling to your clothes when you go home. But you’ll stop smelling it eventually; you’ll become accustomed.” He sighed. “What is important though – is to make sure you don’t become so accustomed to what you see, that you stop noticing that it’s not right.”

He was quiet for a while and then asked me, “Did you notice that many of our nursing staff here are from overseas?” I had indeed noticed, I agreed.

“When asylums opened it was very difficult to recruit staff to them. Most institutions had to turn to other countries – most notably other parts of Europe and the Commonwealth – to ensure they were properly staffed. In this hospital, over half of the nursing staff and almost two-thirds of the ancillary staff, such as porters, cleaners and catering staff are from countries outside the UK. We owe our staff from overseas a great deal – we wouldn’t be able to run the hospital without them.”

We had no more time to see other wards as he realised then we needed to get back to the School for the Interview. “That is, if you’re still keen to enter Mental Handicap Nursing. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, I expect you’re coming to see that?”

“I’m not put off,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here and frankly, I was appalled by the staff who were so horrible to poor old Barry. He’s an old man, just being friendly to a visitor! No one has the right to treat another human being like that. I intended to go straight home, but hearing what Miss Rosthorne had to say and then seeing those wards and the staff there…well, I still don’t think it’s right that these places exist. Why put everyone in here all together? But the staff I’ve met look like they care. I think I can work here. I care about people and I especially care about them being looked after well. I want to do my training and make a difference.”

It wasn’t really like me to make such speeches. I didn’t even know I had it in me! Anyway, I must have said something he liked because he nodded in a meaningful way and said “Right then, we’d better get back to the School and see if we get your career started, shall we?”

Goodness me, it’s one o’clock in the morning! I’ll finish the bit about my actual interview next time I do my diary (I can’t say tomorrow, because I’m useless at picking this up every day, as I’ve shown already!!)

Just a few weeks though and I’ll be there – starting my new life at Brackenwood as a Student Nurse!! Whoop, whoop!!