Helen Corsie

Few people have Helen Corsie’s first-hand knowledge of the extent of the changes in the NHS.

Before she retired in 2007, Helen had worked as a staff nurse in Edinburgh for 46 years – more than three quarters of the entire existence of the NHS.

“We had some great times. Some highs when we helped patients pull

through. . . .”

In that time, she saw the first isolation unit for transplant patients set up in the Royal Infirmary after the hospital carried out the UK’s first kidney transplant in 1960.

She saw resuscitation being used for the first time to save the lives of people who had heart attacks.

She experienced a hectic night in the accident and emergency department treating young women overcome by their first sight of the Beatles playing in the city in 1964.

Helen was also witness to the onward march of technology as bedsides that once contained just a chair and a locker became homes for monitors, pumps, drips and other medical machinery.

The NHS she joined in 1961 as a 19-year-old was very different from the one she retired from more than half a lifetime later. “As a student nurse, you had to live in the nurses’ home for the first two years. We got two late passes a month, otherwise you had to be in by 10 o’clock.”

It was a much more regimented and formal system. “Some of the ward sisters were really quite frightening,” recalled Helen “and we would never have dreamed of calling even a staff nurse by her first name.” Tasks like making beds assumed great importance. Open ends of pillowcases had to face away from the main doors of the wards. “It wasn’t something that mattered but it was how it was done then.”

At the same time a third year student nurse could find herself (there were no male nurses at that time) in charge of a ward of nearly 30 patients. “It gave us a very good training – I think we learned a lot more about basic nursing care than students do today,” said Helen.

“We had more time to spend with patients. There is an awful lot of pressure today. Nurses take blood and give intravenous injections – a whole lot of things that were never done when I started.”

Other big changes she has seen have been dramatic reductions in the time patients spend in hospital. In the 1960s, even a simple operation like appendix removal could result in two weeks in hospital; now patients are out in a matter of days. The scourge of healthcare associated infections such as MRSA was unheard of at the beginning of Helen’s career.

Helen worked part-time after she was married but the friendships made during her training have lasted to the present day. “We had some great times. Some highs when we helped patients pull through, but some sad times as well when that didn’t happen. I really enjoyed my work. There have been a lot of changes but I think we all have a lot to be grateful for from the NHS.”

Helen Corsie