Great Granny B
Breaking the Mould
‘Report to the operating Theatre at 0700 hours.’ I read and re-read this in complete amazement. I was a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) and had just returned from a 23 hour leave pass. I was ready to fall into bed - I was not ready for a command like this. The thought of complying with it terrified me so much that I brazenly took myself off to the Matron’s bedroom and knocked on her door.
‘Matron I don’t understand this note, I am only an orderly, and orderlies are not allowed in the theatre.’
‘They may not have been in the past, but it has been decided that we should experiment, and see whether it may be feasible to change this. In war times we do not always have sufficient trained nurses to do this job. Consequently, you are going to the theatre tomorrow and we will see whether it works or not.’
‘But Matron, why me? I faint at the sight of blood.’ Matron Croll looked at me in disgust.
‘Witt, you will report to the theatre at 0700 hours as stated on your note, goodnight.’
Sleep did not come easily that night. I knew that if I tried to feign sickness Matron would not believe me, and would probably come and get me personally! The next morning, I duly turned up at the theatre in fear and trepidation.
‘Good morning Nurse. I believe you are acting as assistant today’ said the surgeon. I wondered if I should stand to attention and salute - surgeons didn’t usually even speak to orderlies and I had never been addressed as ‘Nurse’ before. I still felt terrified, but this welcome did make me feel important and part of the theatre team.
'Well you had better stand close so you can observe the whole process, and I will explain everything as I go.’ I desperately wanted to escape, to run and hide somewhere, anywhere, but I knew this was not possible so I hesitantly moved to the operating table on which the comatose form of a person lay. I was terrified that I would pass out in front of this man, but I was also overcome by a greater fear. I was going to be partly responsible for the life of this person! I would just have to pull myself together and listen carefully to all instructions.
Actually, I don’t think he gave any instructions, he just explained every step he took so clearly that I didn’t even think about blood, in fact, I can’t remember noticing any. Instead, I became totally engrossed in the removal of tonsils and adenoids. Much later, I finally realised that I had completely overcome my fear of blood when another surgeon handed me a freshly amputated leg, saying, ‘Place this in the fridge please nurse’ and I did so without a second thought.
Helen Witt was the first VAD to become a theatre orderly but not the last, she had added a whole new area of service for future VAD’s.