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Jean Waldron, former learning disability nurse

To celebrate NHS 70 we met with Jean Waldron and asked her to talk about her career and involvement in learning disability over the years.

Jean, who was brought up in Dawlish, started her career in learning disability at The Royal Western Counties Hospital in Starcross in 1969.

Jean begins: “I started my career in 1969 at the Retreat Hospital in St Colum Major in Cornwall. A job came up as a nursing auxiliary and as it was so close to home I thought I would take the opportunity to apply, because it meant I could be home for dinner. I was terrified at first and I hid behind a senior nurse for about a month.”

In late 1972, Jean worked at the activity centre built on the grounds of what now houses the Dewnans Centre at Langdon, where there used to be a hydrotherapy pool: “It was wonderful to see everyone going into the pool all tense and come out about five foot taller.”

Jean started her nurse training in 1974 at Ivycroft in Dawlish and qualified in March 1977 where she worked back at Starcross preferring to work with the learning disabled.

"I was a staff nurse on Bude ward, which had 44 patients. Then I became a ward sister in Topsham ward, a locked 16-bed ward for women aged 18-50. On my first morning I felt that the patients were treated poorly so I took a stand. The girls were dressed in horrible crimpoline dresses, aprons, socks and sandals, so I spent a large sum of money on appropriately aged clothes, jeans and tops etc. It was common practice that you couldn’t dress the girls or make beds as there weren’t enough clothes or bed sheets."

The ward closed in 1978 and Jean then worked on Kenton ward for elderly ladies at Starcross. She recalls: "I really loved it, except I didn’t like making 28 beds a day. I was very lucky and had some great staff. We had a lovely lady who unfortunately had cancer. She went into the RD&E and she said “sister, I want to come home”. She thought that Kenton ward was her home and we decided to look after her there. We worked as a team and cared for her until she passed away."

With the hospitals due to close in 1984 Jean was offered a job at Knightshayes. Jean says: "People were admitted for assessment and treatment, epilepsy or behaviour issues, but many people who were admitted due to challenging behaviour were actually due to a physical condition."

Jean then moved to work at Bowhay Lane, Exeter. In 2006 Jean moved to the newly built Additional Support Unit (ASU) and shortly after this time she decided to retire in 2007.

After retirement Jean became a shadow governor and is a member of Devon Learning Disability Partnership Board. She said: "I’m passionate now at making sure people don’t get sent out of county. I do like the idea of the new system of primary care nurses and liaison nurses at the general hospital. Families can cope with anything as long as they know they have support and someone at the end of a phone to talk to.

Jean ends: "I really enjoyed my career, and here I am, 50 years later still passionate about learning disability.

"There’s still some way to go and there needs to be a more holistic approach and a better understanding of physical symptoms which can be misinterpreted as a mental health need. There are still many people with a learning disability who die too soon.  I’m a trustee of Exeter Mencap and we were recently bequeathed some money and the primary care team, with our support and funding,  are hoping to raise awareness of physical problems which can be masked by the learning disability diagnosis."

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