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Date: 27 January 2023
Histories project goes global
Fiona Denning, from the UHB Communications team, recalls a chance encounter on her trip to South Africa.
After a twelve hour flight and travelling some 6,099 miles from Birmingham to Fish Hoek, a small town just 10 miles South along the coastal route from Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope, I finally reached our holiday apartment. On arrival, I was greeted at the door by Kay Davies, a petite, cheerful lady with a soft South African accent peppered with an unmistakable Brummie lilt.
“Do you know Harborne?” she asked when I probed her on her accent. I confirmed that I did and explained how I knew the area.
“What a coincidence, revealed Kay “I used to work on Switchboard at the QE!”
Kay, as it turned out, had worked at the QE maternity section from late 1960s until December 1970 just three months before she emigrated to South Africa. Fascinated to learn about her time at the hospital, and astonished at the coincidence of meeting a fellow QE colleague, I asked Kay to tell me her story and here it is.
“My maiden name was Patrick back then and I was employed part time, working on the switchboard, “recalled Kay. “I did shift work; evenings from 18:00 – 22:00. I also did day shifts at weekends.
“I can remember the interview being a ‘tough one’ as they were looking for someone reliable, experienced and a ‘people person’. A good timekeeper and a good voice were listed as essential criteria. It’s strange how I remember that detail vividly.
“I worked in the new wing and had to answer the phone with ‘New Birmingham Maternity Hospital’. Our office was just off reception and we were quite isolated. From time to time, a few doctors (the friendly ones) used to pop in and say hello and needed to put a face to the voice on the end of the line, so to speak. I was terrified of them all!
“I was trained by an elderly gentleman, a very small man, I am small and he was even smaller than me! I can see him now; he was excellent at his job and ran the communications very well.
“We had a two-way radio on the desk and an intercom system and we had to call the doctors on this system when someone required them. My training lasted about a week and then I was left on my own.
“I had to deal with all the telephone calls and handle the flying squad ‘emergency’ calls. I also had training in what exactly a flying squad call entailed and I had to determine which was, and more importantly, which wasn’t, a flying squad call.
“That was the hard part. I can remember if anyone called in with a ‘retained placenta’ then this was a flying squad call. There were lots of other terms that meant emergency that we had to learn. Quite often the midwives or the family doctor would call these emergencies in but sometimes it would be the ambulance driver.
“From the start to the end of a flying squad call, everything else was dropped and it was the switchboard operator’s job to round up the ambulance, the doctor at the hospital, sometimes the pediatrician, and a police escort for the ambulance. Time was of the essence and one was expected to fulfill all of this within a matter of a few minutes, if not seconds. It was a sheer panic… and I lived in dread of handling my very first one alone!”
“I remember clearly the very first shift on my own. For my sins the very first call that came in was a flying squad call - somehow I got through it and then had a bad tummy cramp from nerves.
“On one occasion a 12-year old Indian girl was brought in, also a flying squad call, followed by a police enquiry as she was underage and in those days, pregnancies like that were frowned upon. I remember this made headlines in the Birmingham papers. Strangely, because I had handled the call, I felt part of it.
“I enjoyed my time at the QE - it was serious work and one worked very much alone but it was great to be there in the thick of hospital life. I can remember those cold winter nights and happily the car park was right outside the office, so I didn’t get frozen getting from the car park to the office.”
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