Retreat Reflections #1 - Janet Walker

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.

Comments (2)

  1. Ali wright:
    Jan 04, 2015 at 02:35 PM

    The above article was written by my mum, Janet.
    The film she refers to has opened a door to my parents young lives and their training and education, in a way that has been quite extraordinary.

    To see moving images of mum, now nearly 80, in her uniform aged 18 and doing an amazing job, surrounded by caring, innovative and hardworking colleagues, is an astounding gift for our family.
    But it has been so much more than that and has led to all sorts of discoveries along the way. The documentary is an extraordinary piece of history and the care and professionalism shown is so very relevant to today's mental health provision.

    Mum and I were invited to the Retreat in the summer, what a day it was!
    We were warmly greeted by the interested and interesting management team, experiences and ideas, present day and past were shared, changes discussed and plans mooted.

    Then we wandered, in the sun, through my parent's past, visiting rooms that they lived and worked in, mum recalling wonderful family memories, talking about how buildings were used, sharing good practice and bringing her professional and personal life alive for us.
    Much of what we saw was the same...'nothing ever gets thrown out'...seems to be an admirable ethos. The hospital has a feel of long time stability, warmth, home and family about it. Photos were lent to my mum, of the time she worked there, names put to faces, teaching methods discussed, buildings visited and stories shared.

    The Retreat team spoke of changes and plans which hopefully seem to be moving towards cutting edge psychiatry, which the Retreat was famous for in the past. What an accolade it is when my mum says 'A Retreat Nurse could go anywhere,' the standard of training she received was a passport to great things. I hope that that will again prove to be the case for nurses under the retreat leadership.

    We met present day staff, discussed provision, looked in many nooks and crannies and there was more time later for mum to talk and think about what we had all seen and heard.

    We left with a sense that the Retreat was in safe hands, held by people with a vision. (I wanted the whole team to be my best friends.)

    The lessons learnt by my mum as a nurse were carried on in her life's work, even if I did
    come along and anchor her for a while. My brother and I have been lucky to have been raised to hold out a helping hand, when we can, which has led to all sorts of life changing meetings for us and our families.

    So thank you Retreat, may your doors always be open for those who need you.

  2. Cliff Tutthill:
    May 11, 2015 at 06:16 PM

    Oh! what a wonderful account of your mums experiences at The Retreat Hospital and it brought back many personal memories.I walked up to the front door in 1964 to train as a Registered Mental Nurse and went through the same interview with Miss Dodge the Matron.What a dedicated and special person she was! Sadly now not with us but in Gods keeping. Bless her.
    The work was very hard and the hours were long but so rewarding and made me very determined to spend the rest of my career in nursing.I ended up as a Senior Lecturer of Nursing at Plymouth/Exeter university before retiring.I am cerain that the skills and dedication learned at The Hospital laid the foundation of my subsequent life in my career and life in general.
    The people I met and who became my good friends I remember so well and as a young man of 17 years I met a wonderful girl called Jennifer Jane who was the daughter of a ward sister at the hospital called Sister Jane. We spent a lovely summer together travelling around the Yorkshire County.But sadly she prefered her calling to Newcastle university to study Biochemistry instead of me. But thats life!
    I often think about all of the friends I made and the experiences gained throughout my time in training and smile!
    Thank you for this chance to cast my thoughts back to what I consider to be one of the best times of my life.
    Cliff Tutthill

    E-Mail: clifford.tutthill@sky.com

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