Matron still knows best

Joan Woodcock with her book Matron Knows Best. Her new book Matron on Call is published on january 19.
Joan Woodcock with her book Matron Knows Best. Her new book Matron on Call is published on january 19.
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JOAN Woodcock, 61, from Lytham, takes pains to stress she was never a matron, in spite of the title of her first bestseller Matron Knows Best and her soon to be published sequel Matron On Call.

But she has a gut feeling for what’s ailing at the heart of the NHS and has already sent a copy of her first book to the Prime Minister and the health minister by way of reminder.

David Cameron’s views on nursing virtually echo Joan’s, but she concedes: “He’s far better placed to do something about it. Successive governments have done little for the NHS.

“They have taken funding, created top heavy management cultures with too much emphasis on targets, paperwork and degrees. I’d strip away the bureaucracy, bring the old style matrons back, improve supervision, get bosses out on the wards, and get hands-on nurses who genuinely care.”

Joan could have almost penned the PM’s words – on the day of his Blackpool visit – that “nursing needs to be about patients, not paperwork”.

Health campaigners say the fact Mr Cameron felt it necessary to remind nurses to talk to patients was an indictment of the ‘dreadful’ standard of care in many hospitals.

It follows concern about frail and vulnerable patients, particularly the elderly, being left hungry and thirsty in soiled bedclothes because some nurses no longer see their profession as a vocation.

Joan, whose nursing career spanned 40 years after she trained in the 1960s, has seen it all, warts and all.

Her first book made the top 20 list, and made her a champion of patient care, taking part in national campaigns, a round of public speaking engagements, appearing on TV and radio, including Radio Four with Libby Purves and air time with Chris Evans.

“I’ve heard some real horror stories since,” Joan admits.

Last year she spent 90 minutes talking to a nurse from the Queen’s Nursing Institute, a charity which used to train district nurses until the 1960s, and which now actively influences health policies, for a national survey about patient care in the community.

“I made the point that patients were being discharged far too soon from hospital to clear the bed space on the wards,” says Joan.

She was invited to the report’s launch in the House of Lords, met former health under-secretary and opposition health spokesman Baroness Cumberlege and others. “Basically I stirred it a bit.”

Joan is able to draw upon a wealth of true stories from her years in hospital casualty departments – most of them at Wythenshawe in the 1980s, but also at Blackpool Victoria Hospital in the mid-1970s. “My time at the Vic was happy. It was a very close knit team,” she recalls.

“I became a nurse because, as a little girl, I went into hospital to have my tonsils out. My mum was at the Vic, some 40 miles away, having heart surgery, we were poor and working class and dad couldn’t see us both, and mum’s operation was serious, so I didn’t get visitors and the nurses treated me like family.

“At 15 I left school and it was all I wanted to do. I’ve loved every minute of every job I’ve had to do.”

She finally quit hospital nursing after putting herself between a violent man and the partner he had beaten to a pulp. “I faced him down – the sister behind him told me to keep him talking as the police were on their way but after that I thought ‘that’s it, I’ve done my bit’.”

One reviewer has already observed, of Joan’s first book, about general nursing, ‘One can’t help but think the NHS would run a whole lot better if Joan Woodcock was in charge.”

Joan, who started as a cadet nurse, held senior nursing positions in hospital casualty departments, GP practices, the prison service (three years at Kirkham Open Prison), in Marie Curie cancer care homes, and in the sexual assault forensic examination centre for Lancashire Police, before taking early retirement in 2008 to spend more time with her family.

She wrote her first book as a private read for her family before publishers swooped after it was shortlisted for a national writing award.

“It was to show my son that I was a horrible mum telling him not do something because of all I’d seen in nursing. I still do it. He was larking around with his little lad who had a mouthful of food, and I shouted I remember seeing someone choke to death in front of me. ‘For goodness sake, mother’, he said.”

Joan concludes: “I qualified under the old matron system. I was never a matron myself. But they made hospitals great, they were feared, respected, knew their stuff, never missed a thing. We need that. There’s too much emphasis on degrees today. Healthcare assistants, who would make marvellous nurses, can’t because of the degree system.

“In my day training was 90 per cent hands on stuff. You need care, compassion, common sense, and to be prepared to do anything. Absolutely anything. That’s nursing...”

* Matron On Call by Joan Woodcock (Headline hardback, £12.99, is published on January 19. Her first book Matron Knows Best is now available in paperback and hardback.