Retired Nurse (RGN, RPN, CMB and Tropical Diseases).
Born: 10 October 1925; Died: 9 December 2013.
Beatrice Catherine Muirhead, who has died aged 88, was always happy to be described as a nurse, but even she knew she was so much more. In her days as Sister of Glasgow University's Gardiner Institute of Medicine, in the 1960s and 1970s, the GI was part of the Western Infirmary but, to those worked there, it was merely tacked on to the Western.
To the ordinary mortals in other medical units, the GI's inhabitants were uppity and smug - though descriptions were more robust than that - while to its inhabitants their home was the centre of the universe. It was the elite unit where only the crème de la crème lived, where only the best academic brains, mostly professors, were eligible, and they were indeed everything outsiders said about them and more. Beatrice, barely five feet tall, with a face she described as "like a pug," ruled the lot of them, her word was law and there was nothing the highest in the land could do about it.
To the entire Western she was simply known as Beatrice, no surname was necessary, and how to deal with her was a subject frequently discussed. Beatrice said exactly what she thought and her likes and dislikes were instant. If she liked someone they became part of her "family" and welcome for coffee and buns in her room even years after they moved on, but if she disliked someone there was no way they could recover.
A departing houseman once advised his replacement: "Always think positive thoughts, she can smell fear." Another complained he could do no right in her eyes yet he couldn't figure out how he had offended her. A colleague looked up from his crossword and muttered thoughtfully: "I think it's because you're still breathing, old son." Her opinions of people were based on how they treated her patients, she could tell at a glance those who were genuinely interested from those who saw them as career stepping stones to the next job, and I never knew her to be wrong in her judgements.
Beatrice was born in Glasgow, the only child of Florrie and John. Being gassed in WW1 put an end to her father's hopes of becoming a doctor, so he worked in an office all his days. He dearly wanted his daughter to achieve his ambition, but Beatrice was only interested in nursing. "I wanted to talk to patients," she once said, "not talk at them. I wanted to be with them, not standing at the end of the bed, barely looking at them."
Her father eventually gave in but insisted that she train in Edinburgh, which he always viewed as superior to his adopted Glasgow, but once her training was over she returned to Glasgow. The attraction of the GI was its medical research bias and Beatrice was that rare individual who combined patient care with academic ability. On the daily GI ward rounds, as the high-powered medics conferred over the heads of anxious patients as though they weren't there, Beatrice would talk to them, a hand on their arm, as though the medics weren't there.
She never married, though she had been engaged to a doctor in her early twenties. They were bound for South Africa but her father's sudden death meant she had to stay behind to clear up his estate, so the fiance went ahead to make arrangements for their marriage. She never heard from him again.
Discreet inquiries proved he was alive and well, so she never took it any further, knowing the medical fraternity would cover up and protect "even a coward like him. I decided then that I would never leave myself open to that kind of hurt again". And she never did, sadly, because her maternal instinct was very strong, as the care of her patients showed, as did her mothering of younger colleagues, of which I was one. We worked together on the Cardiac Team that responded to all cardiac arrests, events that attracted every medical student because of the drama, and Beatrice would walk silently through the hordes that turned up, grabbing unnecessary interlopers and throwing them out with nothing more than a threatening glare.
One doctor on the team was known to be useless and dangerous and we went to great lengths to stop him appearing at emergencies. Beatrice had a card made up bearing the legend "Do not resuscitate and leave all my organs intact," which she kept in her wallet - after showing it to him and telling him he was the reason.
She was always mischievous and loved to hear the tales told about her around the rest of the Western, chuckling quietly to herself. And the complaints and insults levelled at the GI by the other medical units amused her too, it was proof of their jealousy, she used to smile, an admission of their inferiority to her GI. Even so, she never forgot who said what, especially when they needed a favour. Not that she was any easier on the unit's professors, they might be the elite, but to Beatrice they needed disciplined handling to keep them in check. Often she would refuse them the mildest request just for the hell of it, to show them who was boss - the GI was her realm. This resulting tantrums, foot-stamping and tears hugely amused her, as did the occasional plan to bring her down a peg or two. She would hear about every one and sit at her desk, chuckling quietly, knowing that they couldn't even reach the peg she was on.
Late in her career she was promoted and given a fancy title, but it will always be as Beatrice of the GI that she is remembered, the best nurse I ever worked with anywhere in the world. She set a standard few in the 1960s could reach and, today, when the NHS we both knew has all but disappeared, I look at the way patients are treated and think "What would Beatrice make of that?" Thinking back on memories of hospital life in the 1960s and 1970s, she was always at the centre of them and, even though she lived a long life the sorrow is no less and losing her feels like a huge prop has fallen.
Sailing was the great love her of her life and she retired to Furnace in Argyll to be near water, buying her home because it had a room big enough to house her father's table. There she was happy with her new "family", especially Anne Grant, who shared her love of German Shepherd dogs, and Catriona, an old Western nursing friend who saw her often.
Predictably Beatrice donated her body to Medical Science.
She is survived by two elderly cousins, John and Helen, in Australia, and the rest of us those who were her "family" too.
A memorial service will be held at 1pm on Saturday at Cumlodden Church, Furnace.
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