Simon Carr: When did nurses go from nuns to sadists?

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The Independent Online

When all those hands went up at the nursing conference this week, there was this sudden rush of fellow feeling.

Yes, as they voted for or against the abolition or re-creation of Strategic Wellbeing Trusts or whatever they're called – I had that profoundly comforting sense "I am of these people". They hate change, and I always like that. It's not quite a counsel of despair – that things can never get better – but it does say they aren't falling for the latest big idea to make the world a better place. These administrative ideas – if that's what they were voting against – never work but they take five or 10 years to fail.

That wasn't the most important feeling though; there was a more visceral sympathy in play. When my new friends put up their hands to vote you could almost hear the effort. You could almost hear the communal grunt, like a scrum going down.

And there they were, the elevated forearms of Britain's most important nurses. Male and female, it was the same. Hands like a pound of pork sausages. Arms like hams. As the camera panned along the rows of wobbling crops, it was clear that these were people who knew the merits of a mixed box of Krispy Kremes.

And that's what I have in common with the medical left. When I'm asked how I manage to keep my figure, I reply in one word. And that word is doughnuts. Five portions a day. Glazed, jam, cream, deep-fried in multi-fats and jelly- filled. Apart from "balance" and "varied", the most widely recognised rule of nutrition is: you can't have too much of a good thing.

That is literally true. For those of us who eat bacon and eggs for breakfast – there's never any good reason to stop. You may have to lie down after an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet – but there is always room for another fried egg.

To see my private eating habits publicly endorsed by our most organised health professionals – to find the mainstream has changed course and is now lapping around my middle – that's comforting at my time of life.

In the old days, nurses didn't have much of an opinion about weight and most of them weighed what they were supposed to. Of course, there wasn't as much food in those days. It was physically impossible to eat between meals. And indeed, going back into even more primitive days, the wards were clean. Young, barely educated nurses did what they were told – and what they were told to do was wash their hands a lot, and wipe down the bedsteads with disinfectant every morning. They wore bright uniforms with starched little caps and addressed you with little terms of endearment and if they used your name it was your surname. Especially if you were older than they were. (You probably were.)

What's caused the change, if anything particular has? Is it tertiary education? That is suggested, here and there. It's been made a profession and you get in by qualifying. In those days, nurses were called; it was a vocation. Apart from the sex with doctors in the supplies cupboards on the prescription adrenalin, it was like being a nun.

That was before the war, of course, before the war between doctors and nurses had broken out. Now, the more they know the more resentful they've become.

And what a war it is – the bitterness on both sides is sectarian. And it's got worse rather than better now that everyone involved is more highly qualified. Knowledge does that to people. It makes them self-important – and, believe me, I know all about that.

It's not clear who's winning this Hippocratic battle. Doctors tread very carefully and express their feelings very guardedly and privately because they are heavily outnumbered.

The nurses feel patronised and insulted; the doctors feel sniped at and undermined by their professional inferiors. Education is always the answer, so we say, but the unintended consequences are very interesting to students of the perverse.

The nurses say: "What makes you think that seven extra years of schooling means you automatically know more than we do?" The doctors say: "Where you can make three diagnoses of a set of symptoms we can make 30. Go and wipe the bedsteads with antiseptic."

The nurses say: "You see that doctor with the red hair? He was rude to me in front of a patient. Make sure he doesn't sleep for a week." Then the doctors say things you can't put in a newspaper.

The fact is, I'm frightened of nurses. I'm a bit frightened of teachers, but nurses can hurt you as much as teachers used to be able to. They're in charge of your pain relief at night, for instance, and nights are very long when there's pain relief needed. First they don't come, and then they do come and they stick things into you. Then they pull the things out again. There is a very great variation in the way these things can be done.

They also know whether you've noted the fact that they are, by their own NHS way of measuring these things, morbidly obese. If this thought has inadvertently entered your mind, you will not be able to conceal it. It physically sticks out of your ears and they will react accordingly. "So, you think I'm fat? Don't you know I've got an NVQ in pain management? How about an epidural? No? Really?" (She leans in.) "You'll be asking me very nicely for one before the night is out."

"Take them! Take my Krispy Kremes! As many as you want!" But it does no good.

Maybe there are simply more active sadists in the profession now than before. We shall have to wait for the figures to come out in the census data.

My solution would be to create a new class of nurse below the professionals, the qualified ones, the ones with degrees. A new class of nice, sweet girls who'll wipe the bedsteads with some sort of germ killer, use little affectionate words in between our surnames, and make it their self-sacrificing vocation to soak up the hierarchical energies of the class above them – so the class above them stops taking it out on us patients.

This new level of nurses we'd know as "angels". I will dream on.

Until then – it's time for a doughnut.