What do former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, pop star James Blunt and actor Benedict Cumberbatch all have in common?
They are all ex-Harrow schoolboys – or Harrovians as they are referred to by those in the know.
One of the most famous and iconic public schools in the UK, Harrow’s grand building has even played host to the world famous Harry Potter movies, but the school’s Lead Nurse Linda Tolmie, 41, insists she isn’t fazed by her surroundings.
“When I first came here, the history and traditional nature of the school did make me feel a little daunted, and I was quite scared of talking to the parents as they were often very important people,” she says.
“But after a while you do forget what boys have titles and what boys come from families with ten castles.
“I am blessed with a really bad memory in that respect. I have never been in awe of celebrity status or rich lists. I can’t be bothered with all that.”
While Dundee-born Linda has never contemplated a job outside nursing, her restless nature has meant she has had quite a journey to get where she is now.
Linda qualified as a registered general nurse in 1993 after studying at Ninewells College of Nursing and Midwifery and as a registered sick children’s nurse in 1999 at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.
Constantly unsettled, Linda always felt a better nursing job was just around the corner. This took her from A&E wards, to Romanian HIV orphanages, to walk-in centres, to NHS Direct, to becoming a medico-legal adviser for an insurance company as well as various charity adviser roles.
“I got bored easily and always thought the grass was greener,” she says.
“I was searching for my niche as nothing seemed to fit until I came to Harrow.”
Now in her seventh year at the school, it is the longest she has held a nursing position so far, and her passion for caring for one of the most difficult patient groups – teenagers – means she has no intention of leaving.
For an average of 33 weeks of the year, Linda and her nine-strong team of nurses are responsible for all the essential and basic day-to-day care of around 825 students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Adding Harrow’s rigorous selection process and eye-watering fees into the mix means the students are no ordinary teenage boys.
With the school fee for the academic year 2012/2013 standing at £10,720 per term (£32,160 per year) over five years (the boys stay from 13–18 years old), the hefty price tag of a Harrow education means most of the students are the sons of very powerful individuals.
“A lot of people can’t imagine how I put up with working with so many teenage boys,” she says.
“But I think they are misunderstood. Barely a day goes by when I don’t laugh or smile from something they say.
“They really make [the centre] a happy place to work.”
Despite this, Linda – like a lot of nurses – has to rely a great deal on “opportunistic assessments” when they arise, for those boys reluctant to seek medical attention.
“A lot of teenage boys are very focused on the moment and are very polarised in their thinking,” she says.
“This makes it difficult for us to get health messages to stick and obtain accurate historical accounts of existing medical conditions.
“We have to make sure we take advantage of the times we see the boys during routine assessments to ask them about any pre-existing medical conditions, their emotional state or be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary that even they haven’t noticed.”
It is difficult to estimate the number of school nurses in the private education sector, as such data is not centrally stored. While Linda works for one of the estimated 600 boarding schools in the UK, in the public sector there are around 1,787 school nurses contracted through the NHS working in the UK.
While many have an old-fashioned view of school nursing, Linda says the role has become so much more than nit-checking and administering immunisations.
Like any other school nurse, on any given day Linda and her team could be faced with a number of issues ranging from bullying and depression to sexual health issues and anxiety about exams.
One area most school nurses won’t have to contend with at such scale, however, is that of travel health.
“A lot of the boys have eight homes around the world so there is a lot of work for travel health here,” she says.
“We have to always be aware of possible symptoms and constantly ask ourselves whether it could be travel health related.”
While the majority of time passes with no major health issues, Linda has seen her fair share of emergencies working at Harrow School.
“The boys play sport at a high level so we have had helicopters landing on the playing field for spinal injuries and burst spleens,” she recalls.
“A lot of the time you work alone and may be faced with patients having epileptic fits, hypoglycemic attacks, anaphylaxis and severe asthma attacks so you really have to be able to think on your feet.”
Founded in 1572, just before William Shakespeare began his career, Harrow School is terrifically nostalgic, frightfully traditional and delightfully bonkers at times, meaning it is certainly a quirky place to work.
All students are expected to wear boater-style hats, which they must tip to show respect to teachers – or ‘beaks’ as they are called at Harrow – and other members of staff, and Sundays mean dressing formally for mass in top hat and tails.
While Linda is happy to join in in most of the school’s traditions, it is clear she is somewhat uncomfortable with the school’s formality at times and one custom in particular makes her uneasy.
“It never ceases to amaze me when I ask for a patient’s name and he tells me his surname,” she says.
“As a nurse, I would never dream of calling them by their surname - we are always on first name terms with our patients.”
Students boarding at Harrow develop a close relationship with the nursing staff at the school’s medical centre due to the long periods of time spent away from their parents.
And it is perhaps because of this that Linda is so fiercely protective of the boys and becomes angered by those who make “disparaging” comments about private school.
“People falsely believe the boys are treated like spoilt little lords and it is so far away from the truth,” she says.
“The boys are worked hard at this school and have to go and do hard labour if they have been naughty. They are not mollycoddled here at all.
“A lot of them are homesick and have a lot of emotional needs. Just the basic things such as sitting up chatting with them or making them toast at night is all they need sometimes, and they love you for it.
“They are just boys at the end of the day.”
But how does she answer her critics who question her motives in choosing to care for boys born into extraordinary privilege? Does she feel bad for leaving the NHS behind?
Citing a lack of appreciation, a growing administration burden and becoming “fed up” with the politics associated with NHS working environments, Linda said the NHS drove her out, not the other way around.
She adamantly says she has “paid her dues” working for the NHS and doesn’t regret leaving “for a minute” and doubts she’ll ever make a return.
What is clear about Linda is that she loves her job. Caring for teenage boys is an acquired taste but one I suspect Linda will never get bored of.
Louise Naughton is a writer and journalist specialising in healthcare.
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