Andrew Johnston

A large garden shed that doubled as a bus shelter may seem an unlikely place from which to organise the care of the sick.

But it was in exactly such a location that Andrew Johnston spent the happiest days of his 41-year long NHS career.

“We had to organise it all for them. You got much more involved in those days.”

The garden shed in the grounds of Peel Hospital in the Borders housed the hospital’s telephone exchange which played a vital role in keeping wards and individual staff in contact with each other.

Andrew joined the NHS in 1967, first in the stores department at Peel Hospital and then moved to take up the role of telephonist in 1974. This was before long distance pagers and mobile phones. Everything had to go through the exchange.

Andrew said it was the hospital’s nerve centre. “Things were very basic in the early days. When doctors’ bleeps went off, they still had to phone us to ask where the emergency was.

“If there was an incident like a bad road accident, staff would let us know what they wanted and we had to organise it all for them. You got much more involved in those days.”

The biggest change he has seen in the past 40 years is the speed with which people can be contacted. In the 1970s it was not unusual for the police to be called to alert an off duty doctor to an emergency and bring the doctor back to the hospital. Sometimes it was a race against the clock. “It was scary at times knowing someone was desperately needed and you couldn’t get to them,” recalled Andrew.

He played his own part in improving the response to emergencies. When he joined as a telephonist, the signal for an emergency was for staff to rattle the phone receiver. This was communicated to the exchange and emergency staff were summoned. However, sometimes staff rattled the receiver because they were impatient in getting through on a routine call. Andrew helped to introduce a dedicated line for emergencies which overcame this problem. It proved so successful that it was soon copied in the children’s wards.

He also took advantage of the garden shed’s popularity as a bus shelter and meeting place. Staff used to congregate there on their break or while waiting for buses. Andrew decided to charge them a penny for every cigarette smoked to raise funds for the hospital. He soon had enough to buy inhalers for children with asthma and portable tape players for stroke patients.

The garden shed eventually gave way to a portacabin and, in 1987, all staff moved from Peel to the newly built Borders General Hospital. By the time he retired in May 2008 Andrew was operating a fully computerised switchboard – a far cry from the cord and eyeball exchange he started with.

“Things are different now – communication is quicker and staff can direct dial in and out as well as contact people on pagers and mobile. We don’t have the same personal contact as we used to but that bit is over now. Things have moved on.”

Andrew Johnston