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'I looked after a fatally injured soldier... then a dying bomber who had blown himself up'

The nurses of Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital tell a shocked Myleene Klass about some of Belfast's darkest days in a new documentary

By Claire McNeilly

Published 02/07/2016

Myleene Klass with group of nurses from Belfast
Myleene Klass with group of nurses from Belfast
Myleene moving equipment in Royal Victoria Hospital
Myleene helping to plate up
Myleene with her mum Magdalena

The nurse's story left Myleene Klass looking stunned. "I was asked to look after a critically injured soldier, to stay with him until he died - and then I tended to a young man who had blown himself up making a bomb," said Jean. "He didn't have long left.."

Northern Ireland woman Jean certainly had a rapt listener as she recalled her first few months working in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast during the darkest days of the Troubles.

The soldier had been caught up in a bomb explosion nearby and taken to theatre, but nothing could be done.

Jean had never been around anybody who was dying, but she sat beside that seriously injuried patient as the screens were pulled around them - and did the only thing she could.

"I just tried to make him aware that I was there, and wash off the dust from the bomb," she recalled.

"He looked physically strong but obviously had devastating internal injuries."

A short time later, in another ward, she watched over the young bomb-maker as he drew his final breath.

"There I was, with two very different sets of circumstances, but knowing in my mind that there is no opt-out clause in nursing; you do what you're asked to do," she explained.

It's a poignant story that Jean shares in a TV programme looking back at decades of nursing in the National Health Service.

In Monday morning's episode, presenter Myleene travels to the RVH to learn about its recent history and the role it played in the Troubles.

She also talks to staff on the front line about the ethos of treating the bombers and the bombed, regardless of politics.

Experienced nurses Kay and Lorna were health visitors at the time, while Jean and Horace had only started out as trainees. So what was it like for them?

"You were in a war zone, so right outside the walls the shooting and the bombing was going on close to the hospital, and all too often that war would spill into the hospital," said Horace.

Jean recalled: "Most of us were 18 and 19 years of age, and going back to the nurses' homes and getting into a room together with a cup of coffee we really debriefed each other. We didn't realise what we were doing in those days. We just talked to each other and that was really what helped us to cope."

Looking back, Kay said: "I think that, as ward sisters, we weren't feeling enough of how young people of 18 felt with handling of limbs, serious injuries, maybe being handed, as one nurse was, a dead baby..."

During the 1970s and 1980s the Royal Victoria Hospital was at the centre of a conflict that tested the nurses' caring to the limit.

It played a crucial role in the Troubles, when more than 3,500 people were killed and many more were injured and in need of urgent treatment.

In the second of a five-part series, Myleene, whose Filipina mother Magdalena was a nurse in the UK in the 1970s, asks what part the NHS ethos played in the neutrality of how patients were treated back then. "The neutrality came automotically; you didn't think about it," Horace replied. "We had the full range of political feelings among the nursing workforce and, actually, nurses from both those traditions recently have gone on the record to say that when they came to hospital they left their politics at the hospital door."

Kay said: "They just accepted that you are a nurse and you are on their side whatever it is and you are on their side in terms of health, because that's what we were trying to deliver."

And Lorna added: "That's something of which I think our profession can be really proud, because you saw the results of a bomb and yet you had to keep how you felt about that to yourself and get on and do the job and look after the people who really needed you."

Classical pianist Myleene begins her stint at the RVH - which was already well-established when the NHS started but has grown extensively - by pulling on some scrubs and helping the nurses on Ward 4A.

It's the fracture unit and, as with the early NHS, an estimated 10% of the workforce comes from overseas, including The Philippines - and she's delighted that many of them know her mum.

At lunchtime Myleene serves up grub to Noreena, Hugh and Ray, three of the patients at the west Belfast hospital, which is Northern Ireland's busiest. One of the Filipina nurses employed by the Belfast Trust, whose hospitals and services care for over a million people, is Leonara, who tells Myleene why she came to Belfast 13 years ago.

"I just tried to take a chance to widen the horizon of my nursing profession," Leonara said.

During Matron, Medicine And Me: 70 Years Of The NHS filmed in the RVH with Myleene, which was made by BBC Northern Ireland for BBC One, the 38-year-old model learns about the hospital's Victorian origins.

Former surgeon Richard Clark explains that the Royal was "the first purpose-built, air-conditioned hospital in the world", and she visits the basement to see the fan in action.

She also talks to the head sister about modern patient care, which began with a massive period of investment and expansion in the 1960s.

By the time her mum went to work at Northgate Hospital in Great Yarmouth, nursing and hospitals were changing rapidly, and Myleene travels to Londonderry to visit Altnagelvin, the first completely new hospital to be built by the NHS.

Opened in 1962, its multi-storey design was revolutionary at the time, and the mother-of-two meets nurses who were there the day it opened and they chat about getting to grips with the new technology.

Back at the RVH, Myleene meets Dr Paul Robinson, who has just started his round on ward 4A. It's his job to make sure sick and elderly patients are fit to go to theatre and she "can't help thinking about the incredible breakthroughs in surgery that have happened because of the NHS" - especially from the 1960s onwards when, she says, "some real medical firsts took place".

That was when the inaugural modern hip replacement was carried out and the first liver and kidney transplant took place, while 1971 saw the first clinical use of a CAT scan.

Venturing back onto the ward itself, Myleene pays a visit to people who she describes as "some of the same type of patients" her mother would have looked after back in her day, including Northern Ireland man Walter, who explains that he slipped on grass and fell and broke his ankle.

"I'm an old soldier here," he said. "I've had a liver transplant here and I've been about the wards for a fair while. I'm on first name terms with most of the staff."

Matron, Medicine And Me: 70 Years Of The NHS filmed in Royal Victoria Hospital with Myleene Klass, will be aired on BBC One on Monday, 9.15am.

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