Royston POW who worked as nurse in North Herts and Central Beds salutes NHS in 70th anniversary year
- Credit: Archant
A German man who was imprisoned in North Herts at the end of the Second World War and went on to work as a nurse for nearly 40 years has recounted some of his experiences of the NHS to mark the institution’s 70th anniversary.
Ernst-Wilhelm Peters, known as Peter, was a prisoner of war at Therfield Heath’s Camp 29 for around six months, only being let out to work on farms. He met his late wife Edna in Royston, who he married after being freed.
Peter said: “I remember the day the NHS was inaugurated in 1948.
“Little did I care for that as a 22-year-old who had survived the war and prison camps.
“Health – or should I say ill health – was the least of my worries.
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“I was far more concerned about enjoying my freedom and my courting activities with the girl I married at the end of that year.
“Why should I worry about the NHS? Well, I soon found out.
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“In July, 1950, I suffered bad abdominal pains at work on a farm. My GP sent me to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge with suspected acute appendicitis.
“On arrival, I was seen very promptly – and when I came round from my operation I was cared for by a group of kind people who looked after me until my discharge seven days later.
“On the second day after my appendicectomy the ward sister on her morning round aked me if I had my bowels open.
“Now, there was a conundrum. My English was not bad, but I did not understand what she meant.
“Why was she worried about my bowls? Bowls are for washing up.
“I told her that I did not understand so she decided to call a Polish orderly who she thought could speak my language.
“Eventually he used the common working man’s English by asking me if I had had a s***.
“‘Yes mate’, was my reply. He told the sister that I had my ‘bowls’ open, whereupon she informed me that I did not need an enigma. My mind boggled, but I did not say anything. Why were my bowls in need of an enigma?
“When I got home I told my wife about all this. She could not stop laughing, explaining the whole thing to me.
“My treatment in the newly-created NHS was exemplary, and I can only praise the hardworking, dedicated and caring staff.
“Little did I know at the time that a few years later I would sit my first practical exam at the very same hospital to start a long, satisfying and rewarding career as a nurse.”
As well as Addenbrooke’s, Peter, 92, worked at Three Counties Hospital – now Fairfield Park – and Lister Hospital, then based in Hitchin.
He remembered one sister in particular who taught him was known for her strictness and discipline, but “was always fair”.
He said: “I had been on the ward in the earlier part of my training, but this time it was to be different then before.
“She seemed to push me me all the time. I knew that she would not stand any sort of nonsense.
“I shall never forget the day when we were bed-bathing a patient, and there was an almighty crash.
“The patient, who was a bit of a joker, had pulled the support that held up the table – resulting in the washing bowl crashing to the floor, thoroughly soaking the sister. She let out one scream, and I stood there grinning – wondering if I would get the blame? I could not help remarking: ‘Are your knickers wet, sister?’. I won’t repeat her reply, but was told to carry on with the procedure.
“The incident caused a lot of laughter among patients and staff. On her return in a dry uniform, I was called into her office for a talk.
“Once I explained what had happened she gave a little smile, and said ‘never mind, accidents will happen, but I don’t like the idea of tricks being played on any of my staff or myself’.
“The dreadful day of my final exam report arrived and, on entering matron’s office, she told me that she had received the report on me from the sister. I presumed the worst.
“It appears that the sister had requested to have me on her ward as a staff nurse, providing I passed my exam.
“I was absolutely amazed. I finally realised why I was being pushed, often to the limit. I shall always be grateful to her for helping me become a better nurse.
“My treatment in the NHS was exemplary – and I can only praise the hardworking, dedicated and caring staff. I realised way back when that we had a good NHS service due to the well-trained and devoted staff.
“My opinion has not changed about that to this day, whatever the people who complain about the service say. The NHS is not perfect, but it is keeping up with modern ideas and continues to do so for the benefit of all of our wellbeing – and we should all be grateful for that.”