In the first of our Retreat Reflections Janet Walker look back on her time working at The Retreat. Janet was one of the stars from the Light Through the Clouds film in 1955, which you can view here http://youtu.be/oBENppxH880
It isn’t often one is offered the opportunity to reflect on the influences which shaped you and defined the person you became. Such an opportunity presented itself, totally unexpectedly, when I discovered that the recruitment film, Light Through the Clouds, made for the Retreat in about 1954, was available to view through the internet. I was a first year trainee nurse at the time, took part in the film, and had not seen it again since its official launch.
So what were those reflections? First and foremost, the importance of the Retreat ‘family’, inclusive and accepting. Bullied through my school days, I couldn’t believe my good fortune, as hands of friendship were offered by everyone I met, whatever their position. That’s not to say that senior staff were not respected, but it was not an over-bearing, power based seniority, but had a warmth and gentleness which encouraged learning and a will to do better.
The founder, William Tuke, had a vision of the wellbeing of the ‘family’, encompassing the whole person and securely based on the ‘Light of God which is in every man’. That vision was as firmly grounded in 1954 as in 1796. Staff were encouraged to work together with patients towards their recovery, including activities which would perhaps be considered impossible today. The annual calendar of events included Christmas festivities – some years complete with a pantomime – May Day garden parties with maypole dancing, outings by coach several times during the summer and, for long stay patients, a week at the seaside at Cober Hill. Daily morning exercises to music were held in the Hall for everyone – patients and staff – able to attend. Films, concerts and dances were also held in the Hall, as was the weekly Quaker Meeting for Worship. As the film showed, occupational and art therapies were a regular part of recovery, and the beautiful grounds were a source of delight at all times of the year. Perhaps staff today would find the expectation that they were not allowed to take annual leave over a Bank Holiday, because they were required to spend it with the hospital ‘family’ a little off-putting, but then it was just the way it was.
Part of being a member of a family is learning to listen, and to observe, to attempt to enhance the quality of life for all. Nursing staff were perceived as a vital link between the patient’s family at home, the world outside, and the professional team in whose care they found themselves. Whilst having professional duties and responsibilities, we were expected to talk to patients, to get alongside them, and learn a bit about their world. Patients were just as likely to have skills and experience as anyone else, for example, a children’s book illustrator and a knowledgeable botanist spring to mind, and sharing interests helped to establish connections between real life and hospital life. Just occasionally something surprising happened, as when nurse singing a tune from Gilbert and Sullivan broke through the silent world of a patient suffering from a degenerative disease, and resulted in a rare conversation. Most of the time it was offering the hand of friendship, and developing trusting relationships; relationships which became critical when patients were distressed, perhaps uncertain about reality, were facing feared treatments, or had sunk into the depths of depression.
Doubtless all was not perfect. This was a time when new drugs were only just being developed and trialled, and some patients had lived with the effects of illness for a long time. For them, despite the efforts of all concerned, their lives were lived in a routine of care, safety and control, and the new treatments came too late. For others, anti-psychotic drugs were life changing, and allowed some long-term patients to return to life ‘outside’.
Back in 1954 a psychiatric nurse trained inthe Nurse Training School at the Retreat could go anywhere, so well qualified was she or he. For myself, I worked for a while in another hospital until the birth of my daughter precluded me from continuing – no ‘part time’ posts then! But my reflections show me that although I may have left the Retreat, the Retreat has never left me. My professional life has involved me with both the voluntary sector and in higher education. I have always endeavoured to build up warm and trusting relationships with the people around me, believing that much more can be achieved in such an environment, and have been rewarded by watching remarkable things happen. The last word must go to my daughter - “and the influence of the Retreat has been passed on to the next generations, my brother and myself, and our children.” Long may it continue.