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"The oldest nurse in captivity"

13 November 2012

Health Care

That is how the awe-inspiring Jean Colclough describes herself – having started her nurse training in September 1956.

No, that is not a misprint. 1956 - the year of the Suez crisis and when Elvis entered the US chart for the first time with Heartbreak Hotel. She is believed to be the longest-serving NHS nurse in the country.

Jean, whose student wages were a princely £260 a year, is still going strong - walking miles and miles of corridor every night as a clinical site coordinator at Southend University Hospital. Extremely reluctantly, she is retiring at the end of the year - and only because her pension will be adversely affected if she stays.

At nearly 75 and with twice the stamina and energy of those half her age, Jean was not expected to live past the age of 40. Just after she qualified in 1960, she was in the London Chest Hospital to have most of her left lung removed. Due to the aggressive condition bronchiectasis, her consultant told her she would be a 'respiratory cripple' by the age of 30.

Just 18 when she qualified and resplendent in her regulation butterfly cap, pale blue dress, white apron and black lace-ups, Jean was desperately shy and 'as green as grass' - so having to deliver a bed bath or a urine bottle to young male orthopaedic patients caused agonies of embarrassment. She still remembers the humiliation of being summoned to sister's office when she was not nimble enough on her feet and ended up in the patient's bed. She received the stern rebuke: "When young men are confined to bed, you have to be more vigilant."

Jean never thought she would ever get the hang of all those 'ectomies' and 'otomies' but, at the end of her training, she was awarded the hospital's Johnson gold medal for excellence.

She had originally wanted to train as a doctor, but her parents could not afford the university fees. But now she says: "I don't think I could have done better than I have done. It's been lovely - every ward I worked on was the best place I had ever been."

In November 1982, Jean was promoted to night sister. She has never calculated her weekly mileage as she repeatedly tours the wards and departments but, after bilateral replacements, claims to have the 'best set of knees inSouthend Hospital'.

It is hard to imagine how she has ever found time to come to work. When she is not in uniform, she runs a catering business - thinking nothing of producing a three-course meal for 120. She makes and decorates cakes, teaches cannulation and IV drug administration to doctors and nurses, gardens, and treads the boards with the East Essex Players where she also makes the costumes. She has just finished a run in Fawlty Towers at Southend's 100-year-old Palace theatre.

Jean says: "My retirement letter was the hardest I have ever had to write. I was on my own and just sat there and grizzled. I would happily stay on.

"Fifty-six years is a long time. Just stopping is not going to be easy. I would certainly consider coming back on the bank. But first we have to move house."

Friend and colleague, hospital discharge coordinator Sandra Steeples, said: "Jean will be so greatly missed, and I wish I could clone her - and bottle her energy!"