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Date: 4 August 2021

Time: 00:29

Helen Tees

UHB histories: interview with Helen Tees

The move into the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham will be a time to reflect on the hospitals we are leaving behind and how they have shaped the lives of those linked with them.

For many staff these memories include time at the Birmingham General Hospital and the Accident Hospital which were closed by the Government in the mid-90s for financial and operational reasons. Staff and services were then transferred to other hospitals in Birmingham – many to the old Queen Elizabeth (QEH) and Selly Oak (SOH) hospitals.

Helen Tees, a group manager and senior nurse in Division 5, remembers clearly the day when she first came from the General to SOH on 14 February 1994: “We were all really quite sad to be leaving the General behind. It was slightly underwhelming coming to our new home. It was no grand venture like our current move is.

“The staff at Selly Oak were so welcoming, though. You immediately got the sense that everyone knew each other. It was a friendly, personable atmosphere.

“Even though the NHS has been through massive structural changes in the last ten years, Selly Oak still absolutely has that feeling about it. The amount of peer-to-peer support within the Trust is amazing given the size of the organisation.”

Born in Scotland, Helen first trained in general nursing in the 1960s at the Victoria Infirmary in Glasgow. She then studied midwifery in Aberdeen before returning to Glasgow as a night sister.

She came to the Midlands in 1969, working as a theatre sister in Worcester. In 1974 she was appointed as a nursing officer at the General and was made Deputy Director of Nursing 10 years later. She was Acting Director of Nursing when the hospital closed in 1994.

The Birmingham bombings

Just three weeks into her career at the General, Helen was faced with one of the biggest single challenges of her career to date.

At 20:30, with just one hour to go until the end of her first late shift on 21 November 1974, badly injured people began arriving without warning at the city centre A&E. Bombs had exploded at two nearby pubs – killing 21 people and injuring hundreds.

Luckily for Helen, late shift staff were still on duty and night staff were just arriving. There was also a hospital volunteers’ party taking place next door, so finding adequate manpower to cope with the scale of the emergency was not the problem it could have been.

She said: “A lot of the night is a blur now. Patients and concerned family members were just flooding in. At one point people were literally shoving parked cars away with their hands to clear space for the A&E entrance.

“I don’t think the enormity of the night struck me until I was heading back to my car. I had worked 27 hours straight, from 13:00 on the Thursday until 16:00 the following day.”

The bombings were the biggest single incidents of violence to hit Birmingham since the Second World War. They will forever be engrained in the memories of anyone involved in them; especially the medical staff who worked so bravely to help the injured.

Going through changes

Helen has worked in nursing for over 40 years. She has seen enormous changes in medical practice, hospital cultures and in the expectations of the public: “Training as a nurse was very different in those days. Firstly, as student nurses we were attached to the hospitals, not universities. This meant we had to stay in nursing accommodation and were under the management of hospital matrons and sisters.

“Because hospitals had such large student workforces, they used them to keep the places absolutely spotless. Before I was allowed to work on a ward in Aberdeen I had to spend a full week cleaning in the sluice.

“The culture in hospitals in the 1960s was one of ‘family’. Matrons and sisters felt it their responsibility not just to train the young nurses, but also to take care of them – ensuring they were fed properly and behaved appropriately.

“In terms of working practice, things were very different back then as well. When I became a night sister, the night superintendent and I had to run the hospital’s night service. But I was also responsible for theatres and often had to quickly change into my scrubs to assist with emergency operations.

“Any other time was spent dishing up meals to the younger nurses or offering them support in other ways.”

Medical advances

“I looked through my old nursing handbook recently. It was actually almost amusing. The guidelines in there bear little resemblance to the way we work now. Medical and scientific advances have made such a vast difference to our jobs.

“The new hospital is certainly a representation of this. When we moved services from the old hospitals in the 1990s it was a case of ‘make do and amend.’

“To be able to plan and be involved in the whole process of designing the new hospital and its services to make sure it works efficiently is truly exciting.

“We will finally be able to deliver top-quality care in a fitting environment.”

Hospital cultures

When Helen first started her career in nursing in the 1960s, hospitals were totally different places. There was a strict hierarchy in operational structures but also a thoroughly close-knit, family feeling to staff relationships.

The view of hospitals and the NHS from the outside has also changed dramatically. The public now view the organisation as something to be incredibly proud of but they are also highly analytical.

She said: “Patients’ expectations of our standards are now so much higher than ever before. They are far better informed. The care we deliver has to be accountable and stand up to any scrutiny.

“This can only be a positive thing for the future of healthcare.”

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