July 31, 1961: I was 19 years old and, with my parents, sister and cousin, I was on my way to McCord Zulu Hospital where they would deposit me to commence my dream of becoming a nurse.
Looking back, I recall feelings of trepidation, excitement and anticipation.
McCord Hospital is at the highest point of Durban. The hospital is at one end of McCord Road and, 500m away, at the other end, lay the nurses’ home and nurses’ college which would be my home for three years.
We entered the reception room of the nurses’ home and were greeted by the house mother as I said an anxious goodbye to my family.
All the other new students were from outside Durban and had arrived days earlier. Into this huge dormitory housing I went – about 20 beds with only a locker between each bed. I got the worst bed near the stairs and furthest from the bathrooms. Looking around, I realised I was the only non-African in the class. But differences mattered little – we were all new and scared.
The first three months were spent in the classroom learning theory and practical nursing – bed making with proper envelope corners, bed baths (I was often used as the model), bowel washouts (thankfully using a plastic model), bandaging and so much more.
We were getting along well by now, this band of women, with only the occasional outbursts.
Up until that time, I had only interacted with African people as domestic workers and though they were treated with respect, it was an unequal relationship.
At McCord, sometimes a misunderstanding would cause offence and the women would complain to each other about me in Zulu.
I had made a friend from Transkei called Nomaindia, who would tell me what they were saying and, with the feistiness of youth, I would stand up and say: “If you want to talk about me, say it in English, so I know what you are saying.”
Despite coming from a politically aware family, it was, as the government of the time had made it, difficult, if not impossible, to socially interact with other racial groups. This was the height of apartheid, a year after the Sharpeville massacre, and forced removals were commonplace.
My experience at McCord, with African and Indian women sharing professional tasks and personal space, was largely unheard of at the time. I believe, looking back, that my time there, if for this reason alone, made me a better nurse and a better South African.
After three months, with great anticipation, we were let loose on the patients. What joy to be real nurses! We wore white starched uniforms and caps so stiff they could almost stand by themselves.
Sunday evenings would see us in the laundry painstakingly ironing out the creases from our folded uniforms and putting them on hangers. Once we had our uniforms on, we were not to sit down until we went on duty.
Being the most junior group, we were at the bottom of the rung. We dared not even look at a senior, and when we passed them outside the hospital in McCord Road, we immediately stopped talking.
My first ward duty was Relief/Runner on night duty. I would be at the huge hospital kitchen at 6.30pm, make five buckets of tea, put them in the lift and distribute one to each ward after which I would go to one of the wards and help to serve the tea.
My next job was to go to each floor and lock the outer doors. On the 5th floor roof garden, I would stand; overlooking Durban’s beachfront, homesick, wondering what possessed me to leave the comfort of my home to be a nurse.
The only reason I didn’t give up was that my father was convinced that was exactly what I would do and I had to show him otherwise.
In subsequent years, whenever I would see the round, flashing Coca- Cola sign on the beachfront building that so many of my generation will clearly remember, I thought back to my time at McCord.
Next, I would collect all the buckets and return them to the kitchen. My break was from 10pm to midnight. Luckily, our food at this time was from the doctor’s dining room, so it was better than the nurses’ home food. I would then sleep on the couch provided for us, to be awakened by the next junior whom I would relieve.
At 5am, I would again make tea, distribute it and help to serve, unlock doors and go off duty at 6.30am.
We worked 10 hours a shift, six days a week, day and night duty.
The ward sisters wore white starched veils and we lived in fear of them. The most feared was Sister Mkhize (not her real name) who was in charge of the paediatric ward.
Not a single transgression would escape her and she would pounce, seemingly from nowhere. I was always in trouble.
Gradually, I began to feel more comfortable and my Zulu was coming along. Once I understood what my fellow students were saying, I was able to form more meaningful relationships with them, and, more importantly, better able to communicate with the patients. It’s a lesson that has stood me in good stead – when you can truly listen to someone in their first language, you can know them infinitely better.
The hours were long and the work was hard, but I was enjoying learning to be a nurse. The male ward was at the bottom of the stairs and the patients enjoyed seeing the young student nurses and would tease and flirt with us.
McCord was run by the American Board Mission and prayer services were daily. In the morning, those who could be spared from the wards would join the service at the hospital. Sunday evening service was compulsory at the nurses’ home dining room.
I am Hindu and was never asked to convert to Christianity throughout my McCord experience. Sometimes, a visiting minister would stand on the stage and tell us that those who have not converted would be “damned without redemption”. It never fazed me and in fact, I learnt all the hymns and sang with gusto.
The hospital superintendent was Dr Christopherson, and later Dr Orchard. A special treat was to be asked to babysit for them at their home in McCord Road. This got us out of the nurses’ home and there were always snacks for us.
We spent a month each year in college. Study time was compulsory from 5pm to 7pm every day. Generally, we studied.
But sometimes we spent that time fooling around. Someone would sneak into the cupboard earlier with Charlie the skeleton and when all was quiet would knock from the inside crying “let me out”!
While on study block, we would be taken to Umnini camp at Umgababa for the weekend. There we all had our duties, but much of the time was spent swimming and playing on the beach. We loved this time away.
There was a concert every year. Once we were allowed to imitate and take the mickey out of the seniors. I learnt to dance and sing Zulu-style.
Christmas was special. There was always a big dinner, chicken with all trimmings, and for New Year, a braai on the lawn of the nurses’ home. These occasions were attended by matron, Miss Dennis, Dr Christopherson and his family. They actually served us our meals.
Food at the nurses’ home was barely edible – for breakfast, a bowl of porridge, two slices of bread and jam, and tea. Lunch normally consisted of samp and beans and rice and curry (which was more like stew) for the six Indian student nurses. Dinner was much the same.
Once a week, my mother would send food with my father – a big bowl of rice and curry. I would pick it up at the gate and I, and a select few friends, would devour it.
In the first year, we were paid two pounds a month. This increased annually until, in the final year, I was earning a grand monthly total of 10 pounds. I would buy clothes on lay-by. I recall the joy of picking up my dress when it was paid up.
One day, just after payday, I went to my locker only to find that six pounds had been stolen. I cried when I told my father, who promptly took six pounds from his pocket and gave it to me.
We were ruled by rules and at any given time you were probably breaking a rule or two or three. You could not leave the nurses’ home without permission from the house mother. You were allowed to go shopping in Overport for one hour as long as you signed in and out in the shopping book. Except for your one-month annual leave, you were never allowed to stay outside of the nurses’ home overnight.
On my day off, I would be at matron’s office in uniform at 8am to ask permission to go home, sign the book in her office, then return before 6pm and sign again while she stood there, keeping a beady eye out for late arrivals.
My father took all this a bit casually and I would be in a panic getting him to return me on time.
My sister-in-law’s family lived down the road from the nurses’ home and my uncle 500m away. Visiting them was against the rules, but I sneaked away occasionally, taking a few friends.
As soon as we arrived, we would be plied with food. We were always hungry and my aunt would give me a takeaway before we sneaked back in. To go out at night, the guard could be bribed, but it was very risky. Being young, we sometimes took chances. Any transgression meant instant expulsion. There was no second chance and this was a fate that befell many.
There was no night staff for the operating theatres, so when we worked in theatre we were on call for emergencies such as Caesarean sections. The hospital guard would be sent to the nurses’ home and the house mother would come with a torch to wake us up. We walked down McCord Road blurry eyed and sleepy at 2am.
I loved working in theatre, especially for Caesars. The wonderment and joy of seeing this wriggling, howling baby come out of this huge abdomen stays with me. And when my own son was born in that very hospital 14 years later, it felt in many ways like I had come full circle.
There were no orderlies to clean the theatres, so Sundays saw us donning rubber aprons and boots, hosing down the walls, slipping and sliding in the water and having great fun.
When a patient died, two of us would wash the body and put it into a shroud. By this time in our training, we were quite blasé about death and we would laugh and chat while we worked. Once I heard a patient behind the curtain say, “listen to them, if it was one of their families they would not be carrying on like this”.
We would then put the body on a trolley and take it to the mortuary. There was a little slope before you got to the door and sometimes it would start to slide down a little.
In this cold room, we would then lift the body and place it on to the slab. All in a night’s work!
On night duty, there were only two nurses running the ward: the senior nurse “Big One” and the junior nurse “Small One”. When I was the senior, a patient commented: “The small nurse calls the big nurse Small One and the big nurse calls the small nurse Big One!”
And so I progressed, gained confidence and enjoyed learning how to be a nurse. By now, we were only three per room and junior nurses kept their respectful distance.
Finally, after three-and-a-half years, graduation day arrived. My parents were there to see me, now in a starched white veil, receive the Florence Nightingale lamp and take the pledge.
The skills and training I received at McCord Zulu Hospital have carried and shaped my life and the recent reports on the fate of this hospital stirred me down memory lane back to this wonderful place of learning and training.
* Reddy is a retired nursing sister.