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The student, the nursing support worker and the mysterious poly bag

Carol Dale 23 Nov 2023

Today is all about celebrating and recognising the contribution nursing support workers make across health and care services. I remember my first few weeks as a student nurse working in a medical ward.

Surgical Stockings

This was my first real experience of learning about the role of the nursing support worker (NSW) or, as they were called in those days, nursing auxiliaries. The first nursing support worker I encountered, Jean, wore, as they all did, a misery grey coloured dress with a red hospital jacket and a cardboard hat sat on top of her head. She had a stern look about her the first morning I was paired up with her. If I am honest, she was a bit scary, and I wished I had been paired up with the other auxiliary who smiled and sang while going about her duties. 

I soon learned that nursing support workers were the backbone of the team and how much student nurses and registered nurses could learn from them. We had finished assisting our first patient to wash and dress. Jean took the basin away to empty it and in her broad Irish brogue said: “Now Nurse Dale, you can put Mary’s surgical stockings on and join me when you are finished. And don’t take too long, I’ll need a hand to change Elsie’s bed sheets as she isn’t very mobile.” 

I almost snapped my heels to attention as she reminded me of the sergeant major out of Dad’s Army. I looked at what I guessed were the surgical stockings. The stockings were thick, white and extremely unflattering. I explained to Mary what I was going to do, which took some time as she couldn’t find her hearing aid, and I found myself making a very poor attempt at miming the action of putting stockings on. I only wish my mime had been an accurate reflection of what lay ahead of me.  I started to put the left foot into the compression stocking and nothing happened.  I tried again with a bit more vigour and managed to get it over the foot, then the real challenge began. I could only get them up so far and I could hear myself grunting at the effort while trying to reassure Mary that everything was fine. I was flushed, my hair was all over the place and my carefully put together bun from that morning would never look the same again this side of my next shift. I was exhausted and had been working on the same leg for almost 10 minutes. Mary seemed in no hurry for me to finish the task and her patience with me somehow made me feel worse. Just then I heard footsteps and Jean opened the curtain to let herself in. I caught Jean trying to stifle a laugh and this made my face look even more like a beetroot. I was mortified and trying desperately to banish the tears that I knew were about to flow.  

Jean told me to sit down on the bedside chair.  She produced a white poly bag from her pocket.  I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next but knew this was a ‘teaching moment.’

She skilfully placed the compression stocking over the plastic bag making sure that the toe was pointing downwards into the bag. She put the foot into the stocking and grabbed hold of the unflattering fabric at the ankle. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  Jean slowly pulled the stocking up Mary’s leg. I could see that she was using the fabric to create tension to help slide the stocking on. Once she was happy that the stocking was in place she moved onto the other leg. Once Jean was finished, she put the poly bag into the bin. Still in awe, I followed her to the next patient. ‘Now, I am going to show you how to use a slide sheet properly, so you don’t knacker your back, Nurse Dale.’ Despite her best efforts, I saw the left corner of her mouth turn up in what I believe was a smile. That day I knew that I had a lot to learn from this nursing support worker and many others. 

I have been privileged to work with many amazing nursing support workers and can truly say that I would not be the nurse I am today without their support.  

I am looking forward to seeing how #NursingSupportWorkersDay is celebrated and hearing more stories of the positive impact nursing support workers have.

Carol Dale

Carol Dale

Lead Nurse Independent Health and Social Care, Scotland

Carol is a Registered General Nurse with almost 30 years' experience working within both the NHS and the Independent Health and Social Care (IHSC) sector.  

Her roles within the IHSC sector have included working as a Director of Care, Regional/ Divisional Manager, Hospital Manager and Independent Care Consultant. She has a BA in Nursing and a BSc (Hons) in Health and Social Care, and she is currently studying for an MSc in Nursing.

Page last updated - 23/11/2023