Born before the NHS

My mother gave birth to me just a few weeks before the NHS was  born in July 1948. When the NHS was ‘celebrating’ its 60th birthday in 2008 the Shetland Times ran an article on the early days of the NHS in Shetland – you can find the full article here 60 years of the NHS through the eyes of those who witnessed hard times

One of the retired nurses who was interviewed for the article was Edna Duncan (now Edna Poplar) who we met at North Roe last week – and bumped into in Hillswick last night!

She describes the maternity annexe where I was born – my mother spent nine weeks there prior to my birth – at a cost of £2 per week (according to one of the other interviewees). Here is an extract from the article:

SHETLAND’S first maternity annexe opened at Midgarth in 1947, shortly before the start of the NHS.

It consisted of two Nissen huts (with frosted glass windows) and a wooden hut, all linked internally by steps, and could accommodate 12 patients. Sister Edna Duncan, who later became Poplar, was in charge from 1957, continuing to be in charge when the maternity depart­ment moved to the annexe adjacent to the Gilbert Bain Hospital in 1962.

Five patients would be in the upper Nissen hut with seven in the lower hut. There was a labour room and a “first stage” room, which could double as a labour room (C-section patients would go to the old Gilbert Bain). Patients who had just had babies were not allowed to walk and were carried up and down stairs.

All domestic service was done in the wooden hut, and in a corridor connecting the Nissen huts were the kitchen, dining room, sluice and office.

Sister Poplar recalls: “It was very basic and in winter with the gales and snow the draught was dreadful. We would pin up grey army blankets against the windows to keep out the draught. Everyone just accepted it because there was nothing else.”

Heating was provided by radiators heated by a boiler – and it was the job of ambulance drivers to fire it up with smokeless fuel.

Washing of the towelling nappies was another job, this time done by nursing auxiliaries. “They washed them by hand and hung them out on the washing line. It was primitive but we were happy and the patients were happy. It was a wonderful place to work.”

Babies born there would lie in canvas hammocks suspended from a wooden frame and the only incubator was a “Queen Charlotte” model, which had spaces for hot water bottles on each side of the baby and at their feet.

The “new” annexe, now demol­ished, was something of a culture shock having only 11 beds. But a new dome-shaped incubator de­lighted the nurses: “We thought we were living in clover.”

In spite of modern medical improvements, Sister Poplar prefers the traditional system of keeping babies in a nursery rather than beside the mother – it allowed the mother to rest.

Very few patients in her time – she became nursing officer in 1974 – went to Aberdeen. But once she had to go to Aberdeen to collect a baby that was in hospital there. “If we had a day off we would do it then. We never thought of going when we were on duty.”

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