2 October, 2020
I sat on my terrace this morning and, falling into a brown study as Holmes’s Watson used to say, I happened to look at a packet of sticking plasters on my table and my mind went back to Mr Bates, the first aider.
I was working in the site office of a large building company in the centre of London. Our cabin was in the shadow of Waterloo Bridge and the windows overlooked the Thames. It was the mid-70s and early spring, and a memo came from head office saying that we all had to attend a course on first aid. The site was a large one and there was a qualified first aider there all the time but the company felt that everyone in the offices should be able to help if an accident occurred when the first aid man was not to hand.
So once a week for a month or so we went to head office along with the admin staff from the other building sites in London and were given first aid lessons by a Mr Bates. He was a friendly man and must have been nearing retirement. Immediately Mr Bates was known to us as Master Bates. Our building site humour was always at the ready although it was often in dubious taste. I think that Mr Bates was the most patient man I have ever known. He showed us how to apply bandages of varying complexity, and he put up with all our ribald comments. He took his work seriously and loved every aspect of it. He taught us how to lay the patient in the recovery position, how to treat shock and how to stop bleeding. We practised administering artificial respiration. Perhaps 90% of the secret of being a good teacher is being enthusiastic about your subject. On this count Mr Bates was not just good. He was the best. After the first class none of us called him Master Bates any more. We tried hard to learn so as not to disappoint him as much as for any future use our first aid knowledge might prove to be.
Mr Bates regarded doctors as beings from another sphere. In his eyes they were far above mere first aiders like him. They were a fount of all knowledge. Just once, though, he did confide to us and he told us of a moment he treasured. ‘You know, gentlemen, I’m not too bad at bandaging. Once I put on a bandage and the specialist in the hospital said it was the most professional bit of bandaging he had ever seen. He even said that it was better than many doctors could do.’ But then he added, ‘Of course the doctors have a lot on their minds, and I am doing bandaging every day so I have become used to it.’
The last day of the course arrived and with it came the final test in front of a doctor. This was at 3 pm. The doctor was late, and this allowed Mr Bates time to give us a little more coaching before the moment of truth. ‘It would be lovely if you all passed,’ he said. At twenty past three the doctor arrived and he had been well dined by the company. His eyes were half shut and he looked sleepy. His breath smelt of whisky. As he interviewed us he looked relaxed and content. Mr Bates, on the other hand, was busy going round encouraging us. ‘I think you’ll get a question about tourniquets’ or ‘Remember what I said about taking a pulse.’ Anxiously he gave each one of us some last minute advice.
The doctor asked us each a question in turn. Mine was about how to put an Elastoplast on a cut. All plasters were called Elastoplast in those days.
I explained how to wash the cut, then apply some antiseptic cream and finally put on the plaster while at the same time making sure not to touch the wound.
‘But what do you do before putting on the plaster?’
I had no idea. I was sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. I had prepared the wound thoroughly. Everything was ready for the plaster.
‘You remove the plaster from its wrapping,’ said the doctor.
This was the level of medical knowledge he assumed we were capable of. How little he knew of the dedication of our teacher.
We all passed the test. Perhaps the large lunch and the whisky had something to do with that.
Mr Bates was overjoyed at our results. He congratulated us warmly though the merit was entirely his. Before we all left to return to our site offices we held a collection for him, and we all gave willingly and generously. Then we presented him with the amount in an envelope and one of us made a speech of thanks. Mr Bates was overcome.
‘Well, gentlemen, (He always called us ‘gentlemen’, which we certainly didn’t deserve after what we had called him at the start of the course.) Well, gentlemen. I don’t know what to say. I just don’t. I am grateful to you all. Very grateful indeed.’ He faltered and could say no more in his emotion and so we gave him a hearty round of applause.
I am not saying that all first aiders are like Mr Bates, and I am not saying that all doctors are like our examiner. But I do know that this is what happened in London back in the early spring of 1974.