Book review: Matron on Call by Joan Woodcock

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One minute you can be saving someone’s life, the next stemming a simple nosebleed or getting to grips with an aggressive drunk ... there’s never a dull moment in a busy hospital casualty department.

After 40 years’ service with the NHS, Lancashire nurse Joan Woodcock has seen it all but it was in the A&E department at Wythenshawe hospital in south Manchester that she learned the importance of keeping a cool head.

Now retired and living on the Fylde coast, Joan’s career took her from casualty and geriatric units to austere prison clinics, GP surgeries and the distressing work of Lancashire Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) centre at Royal Preston Hospital.

She has witnessed operations and amputations, made up thousands of beds, mopped miles of floors, offered unstinting care and comfort and, as a Marie Curie nurse, helped patients to die in peace.

Matron on Call is the entertaining and revealing follow-up to her best-selling memoir, Matron Knows Best, and recounts in colourful and graphic detail the highs and lows of her six years in casualty.

The fictional Chatsworth estate featured in the Channel 4 TV series Shameless is based on Wythenshawe and the hospital has been featured in several episodes.

During Joan’s stint in the hospital’s A&E department in the 1980s, she dealt with every manner of injury from broken limbs, horrific road accidents and fatal heart attacks to drunken patients jumping the queue, ingrown toenails and earache.

Taking place over 24 hours one New Year’s Eve, Matron on Call shows what really goes on behind the scenes in Accident and Emergency and proves that Joan has a talent for dispensing common sense as well as bandages and balms.

Casualty, she says, is a department that nurses either love or hate because it is so different to the rest of the hospital. The permanent staff tend to have their own clique and there is little time for niceties as everyone is generally so busy.

The frantic pace of the department is not helped by the public using it as an extension of their GP surgery, appearing with ailments that should have been treated by a family doctor or pharmacist.

There are also those who repeatedly turn up at A&E feigning illness to gain attention, and time wasters like the young woman who had the temerity to sit in the waiting room with no more than a broken fingernail!

There are also the hazards of children running riot without any effort from the parents to control them and other adults increasingly reluctant to intervene. ‘Discipline in general,’ claims Joan, ‘now seems in retreat.’

Casualty, particularly at weekends, can be an alarming place for patients and staff as the department copes with the fall-out from excessive drinking – drunks ranting and making threats, fight injuries and road accidents.

Porters regularly came to the assistance of night staff if a situation got out of control and one stalwart became their unofficial bodyguard as he had the knack of always being there at the right time.

In between the routine work, there were dramas like the doctor in a cardiac ‘crash’ team who dropped down dead racing to a heart attack victim, resuscitating an elderly woman in a cramped lift and a knifeman who threatened to kill a nurse, saying he hated gypsies and that she looked like one.

Joan never fully came to terms with sudden tragic deaths, particularly when the victims were young, but she learned to accept that not everyone can be saved and ‘after everything, there is always another patient waiting’...

Funny, compassionate and compelling, Matron on Call is a heart-warming and honest portrayal of nursing in all its goriest and most glorious moments.

(Headline, hardback, £12.99)