We need to care about nurses

Published by The ipaper (24th December, 2018)

She was a straight A student who had just become a teenager when paralysed from the neck down in a car smash. She had long hair her mother plaited into elaborate styles. Beside her bed was a photograph with her parents on holiday, drinking happily from a coconut, and another of the family cat. As this devastated girl lay for long nights in her London hospital, laughter could be heard from the staff room next door while she rasped out: ‘Let me die. Let me die. Let me die.’ 

The heartbreaking story is told in ‘The Language of Kindness’, a memoir of 20 years in nursing by novelist Christie Watson. She tells how she performs a battery of tasks to protect her patient’s body but the most important task is to help repair the girl’s mind. She holds the girl’s unmoving hand, reads aloud ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and softly says she understands such thoughts but hopes the girl will not always feel that way. ‘’It’s a terrible thing to happen. I can’t even imagine how you must feel. I’ll do anything I can to make it even a fraction better. I am with you.’

This brilliant and profound book left an indelible mark on me this year. Some parts are painful to read as you flick through pages filled with the human flotsam that flows through hospitals: lonely old folk, battered babies, feckless prostitutes, diseased bodies, crushed limbs, tormented brains. The tale of a another girl whose life ends in her arms after a house fire is gut-wrenching, washing the dead child’s hair so it does not smell strongly of smoke when seen by the grieving family. ‘I push tears back, make my stomach hard. It is not the time to cry.’

Watson does not shy away from the corrosive nature of such work. ‘Grief can only be swallowed so many times before it damages,’ she says. Many colleagues seek release through partying. One student confides during an operation that she has slept with everyone in the theatre except the patient, while anti-social hours wreck relationships. Another time, the author and her friends are ‘screaming with laughter’ after finishing off a canister of nitrous oxide left over from a home birth. She admits there are also bad nurses that stray far from the sanctified image.

Yet this book is almost poetic in parts as an acclaimed novelist describes small touches that join together to create an indiscriminate culture of compassion. It is also important. There has been a deluge of books by doctors, sparked by brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s brutally honest memoir. But while nurses are the oil in the medical machine, so vital to patient well-being, their voices are heard too rarely – perhaps because they are still mostly women. Watson offers vital balance as we focus on reforming care in an ageing society amid the struggle for resources.

She calls it ‘the most undervalued of all professions’ – and adds rightly it is nurses who often get blame for bungles while doctors protect each other. We see too often how the national health service exploits public affection with its lack of transparency and tendency to close ranks against critics, whistleblowers and victims of mistakes. Witness the long-running furore over the case of Hadiza Bawa-Garba with doctors banding together in support of an incompetent colleague rather than showing sympathy over the death of a six-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome.

Watson sprinkles her book with medical nuggets, personal reflections and telling points about our overloaded and under-resourced NHS. She steals a blanket for one cold patient from a private ward and sees older people clogging up beds when no longer needing treatment. She reveals cardiac arrest survival rates are almost four times higher in a Las Vegas casino than a British hospital. And says three people die each day waiting for a donated organ in our existing opt-in system. ‘Nobody should die waiting for a kidney that is buried in the ground, disintegrating.’

As politicians bicker over Brexit, it is hideously clear that crucial issues involving our creaking NHS and crumbling social care have been swept aside. So this is a timely work to read – not least since nursing does not stop for seasonal festivities, as I know all too well over the years with my own family. There are few sadder places than a hospital over the holiday period, despite valiant efforts to spread good cheer. 

Nursing begins before birth and ends after death, as this beautiful book reminds us. Sometimes stories end in joy, sometimes tragedy. Our health system relies on its diverse army of nurses to soothe the suffering – yet these unglamorous forces are becoming over-stretched in the NHS, exacerbated by a toxic immigration debate and too much pressure. Watson quit, like so many others, burnt out and exhausted.

It took the death of her own father to ram home the fragility of life to Watson and see how the job was simpler than she thought. ‘It doesn’t really need theorising. Nursing is helping someone that needs help.’ She tells of her last day in one ward, enjoying cake and tea in an office with brain scans lining the walls before friends chuck her in a bath full of ‘revolting’ mushroom soup. She is filled with pure joy as half a dozen sick children in wheelchairs or holding drip-stands laugh at her plight. ‘I have never heard a sound so beautiful.’ 

Kindness is contagious, concludes Watson. ‘I have seen humanity at its best as well as its very worst and despite all I have seen, I believe that most people are inherently kind.’ A message well worth taking to heart – and not just at this time of year.

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