Over the last few weeks I have been sharing the stories of some of the people that set me on the path that would lead me to where I am today. All of them provided me with valuable lessons about life and this week I wanted to say thank you to my first full-time boss.
Since the age of 14 I had been working along the seafront and had been given a great deal of responsibility for my age. But I was still a student and it was fairly relaxed and only part-time.
In June of 1970 I left Highbury Technical College with a diploma in secretarial studies. Whilst I worked the summer along the seafront in my role as taste controller for the whipped ice-cream machine… I was also occupied with finding my first full-time job. To be honest I was earning around £7 a week with tips and was slightly disheartened to see that my diploma only qualified me for jobs that paid £6.00 or less in some offices.
My mother felt that at least it would be a stepping stone to better things in the future and that selling ice-creams was not necessarily a career. I searched the job pages and attended several interviews. One stands out in my mind as a watershed moment. The interview was conducted by a rather fossilised lady of a certain age who reminded me of my headmistress. The lady in question was a lovely human being I am sure, but her opening statement made me reconsider my application.
‘I have worked here for Gamble Your Money Away Solicitors since I was a gal myself you know, forty years and just coming up for retirement. I am looking for a worthy replacement that I can train into my job over the next year.’
The next day when the evening paper came out I decided to change tack and an advert leapt out of the page at me.
Secretary/Receptionist required for Dental Practice in Southsea. £9 per week.
Two days later I was interviewed by Roland Phillips. He too was on the elderly side and in fact was 67 years old, but was immaculately dressed in a suit and white jacket. I was only seventeen but we seemed to have plenty to talk about, and for some reason he saw my potential. I was hired to begin the following Monday.
Roland was an former army dental surgeon who had served in the desert during the Second World War and ran his practice as if he was still in uniform. My training was intensive and included learning the names and backgrounds of everyone of his 400 private patients. Each evening before I left I would retrieve the next day’s patient’s records and do a summary of their last treatment and what was expected at this new appointment. The files were presented on his desk for his arrival at 8.00am sharp for him to review with his coffee. There were no breaks in the day except for an hour for lunch when the surgery was closed. On Wednesday afternoons when Roland was out on the solent sailing his yacht, I was given the task of thoroughly cleaning every piece of equipment in the surgery, sometimes with the use of a toothbrush.
My job was to take phone calls and to ring patients a little tardy in making their own. I also would prepare accounts for the customers at the end of each month by going through the files, typing their treatment and the cost onto high quality paper. These were then despatched and if not paid within 14 days they had to be chased up with a phone call. I would then complete the banking and prepare monthly accounts for the incoming revenues and outgoing costs.
I wore a white coat and sensible shoes and I was always Miss Coleman to Roland and his patients. My hair was tied back and nails had to be kept short and very clean. I was not allowed to wear make-up of any kind including lipstick. (A little different from my outfits worn after work!) This was tough on a 17 year old but I loved the job…..
That was the September of 1970 but early in 1971 things evolved by accident. He was in the middle of a surgical procedure, removing a stubborn molar root, assisted by his long time dental nurse. I heard the thump as I was preparing the monthly accounts. I feared the worst. Had the patient fallen out of the chair during the procedure, or even worse had Mr. Phillips succumbed to his advanced years in the middle of surgery? It quickly became apparent that this was not the case.
‘Miss Coleman, please get in here immediately.’
I entered the surgery to find that his nurse was now sitting in a chair holding her head in her hands and looking very pale around the gills.
‘Ah Miss Coleman,’ he smiled at the patient who was looking a little discomforted at this point, mouth wide open and wide-eyed.
‘Could you be so kind to take over and continue with the suction.’
It turned out that the lovely nurse who had been with him for many years was unexpectedly pregnant and could no longer stand the sight of blood. Luckily I was not squeamish and I found myself not just handling the suction, but handing over instruments and mopping up the patient.
The one clear personality trait that summed up Mr. Phillips, was his dislike of change… he had no wish to break-in another chairside assistant and considered me bright enough to learn the job fast. Unlike today where it is necessary to undergo a college course beforehand. Things were a little more basic in those days but I was expected to get up to speed very quickly. His current chairside assistant took my previous role on for a couple of months until she left to have her baby. I learned on the job as well as studied at home with books from Mr. Phillip’s library. He decided not to replace by predecessor and bumped up my wages by another £2 per week.
My role now included all of the reception and accounting duties as well as full chairside assistance 9 to 5 every day except Wednesdays. I worked through lunchtime to catch up on paperwork and we had an answer machine for appointments that I would deal with when my services were not needed in the surgery.
Roland Phillips was a consultant dental surgeon he would take referrals from other dentists for more complex procedures. I would assist him in operations such as multiple extractions with an anaesthetist who would come in one afternoon a week.
I was also responsible for developing the X-rays that were taken and I had a dark-room at the top of the stairs where I would retire with long rubber gloves and a mask. The X-rays were attached to a metal frame that held four pairs at a time. They were released from the clips by a centralised catch at the top of the frame for use after they had been dipped in two separate tanks.
On one memorable occasion I accidentally released this catch, depositing all the X-rays in to the second fixing tank. I had rubber gloves up to my armpits, so I stuck my hand down and managed to retrieve them all. I then had to identify which was which and I consulted the patient records for those concerned. I thought that I had got away with it until one day my boss requested my presence in the surgery.
In the chair was an elderly patient who wore dentures but had been experiencing pain under her lower ones. She smiled at me toothlessly whilst Roland held up the X-ray to the light.
‘We appear to be witnessing a miracle Miss Coleman.’ I waited with bated breath.
‘Miss Smith seems to be growing an entirely new set of teeth!.
Apparently I had swapped an 8 year old’s Xray for an 80 year old’s!!
Three days after my 18th birthday in February the lights went out. The miners’ strike was now into its sixth week. The blockades preventing coal reaching power stations meant that the government had to begin scheduled power cuts.
We now know so much more about the circumstances and the conditions that the miners were striking about and can empathise with their position. However, at the time it meant that households and businesses also faced hardship as they were switched off on a rota basis between 7 a.m. and midnight every day. Most were without power for up to nine or ten hours.
Many businesses failed to recover and certainly hundreds of thousands of men and women were laid off during those difficult days. Certain services though had to continue and we were considered one of those.
Dentistry relies heavily on electricity. Even back in 1972 we had the newest electric drill, suction machines and X-rays. Faced with no power and patients booked in for procedures we had to improvise. Out of Roland’s garage materialised two ancient but still functional pieces of equipment, last used in the African desert in 1945.
One was a drill that was powered by a pedal that the dentist pumped up and down with his foot; a little like the old treadle sewing machine. This was of course considerably slower and noisier than our modern electric drill, and also very tiring for my 68 year old boss.
When you drill you have to add water to the patient’s mouth to ensure that the drill does not overheat and burn the surrounding tissue. It is also necessary to suction this out to prevent the hapless patient from choking to death.
This is where my piece of equipment came in. Again pedal driven, it was a large wooded box that provided a stream of water through a hooked pipe into the patient’s mouth and another pipe sucked the excess and deposited into a bottle attached to the side.
Looking back it must have seemed to anyone watching that we were in the middle of a Monty Python sketch. Both of us pedalling like mad to a background of very percussive sounds; whilst the patient lay back in the chair in a state of abject terror.
By the time I left Roland Phillips at age 19 I was much better equipped to deal with the challenges of my working life ahead. I knew that I had to learn fast and well, and not to cut corners. I was used to working for someone who trusted me to do an important job and to work however many hours were needed to complete it. He taught me self-discipline and commitment, as well as customer service skills and punctuality. Because of his hand in developing my attitude to work, I was promoted into my first management role at age 22 and was running my own business by 24.
Even now after he is long gone, I still remember my time working for him and the lessons that were drummed into me. So thank you Roland Phillips for teaching me about work ethics and anytime I have writer’s block I can hear his voice in my ear.
‘Get on with it Miss Coleman, the patients cannot wait all day.’
Thanks for dropping in today and hope you have enjoyed meeting one of my favourite people who have helped me on my way. Sally