Now let’s get something quite clear from the start. Nurses aren’t angels. They used to be in the 1950s. And a bit later in those Sue Barton books. You know the ones where Sue always tenaciously saved the day despite mean colleagues, a monster matron and an uninspiring love life. And of course nurses are still sometimes angels in the tabloids, or occasionally angels of death if they’ve done something very wrong. But in the main part they are actually human…and consequently have the same foibles and good or bad days as the rest of us. Some are cheery, some are grumpy, some are super efficient, some forgetful and disorganised, some are thoughtless, some can’t do enough for you.
The problem nurses (and us patients ) have though is all of these characteristics are magnified simply because of the job they do. When you are vulnerable, possibly at your lowest ebb in life, the actions and attitudes of the people around you can lift you out of despair or pin you firmly down at rock bottom. Like many patients I’ve had both extremes. I’ve had nurses talk over my head complaining about their shifts while they prepared me for a biopsy, not noticing I had tears pouring down my cheeks. I’ve had nurses carelessly give me the wrong medication or ‘forget to give me lunch’. I’ve heard nurses with strong accents shout at elderly patients just because the patient couldn’t understand what was being said. But for each of those angels who failed to live up to even the smallest of expectations, I’ve met plenty whose humanity and thoughtfulness made my life in hospital much more bearable.
These days there’s alot more expected of our nurses too. Most of us still think of them as people whose job is to hand out pills, make good hospital bed corners with sheets and extremely thin blankets and say “there there” when we need it. They do all this of course but for some, nursing has become an extremely technical and specialist career. I was blown away by the expertise of many of the nurses who looked after me during three weeks in intensive care. I’d been extremely ill and on a ventilator for 5 days. I had numerous issues, a rare immune system condition, and many symptoms and blood results that were baffling the doctors. Julie looked after me for several days after I had been brought out of sedation. She did all the ‘normal’ nursing things for me, gave me bedpans, rolled me over to stop me getting bedsores, got me eating and drinking again. But after a few days I realised she was doing so much more. It was Julie who was really keeping across my condition minute by minute in the day, examining me and looking at blood results for any discrepancies. It was Julie who was constantly checking the many machines I was hooked up to, keeping them working and checking the readings. It was Julie who would effectively kick off the discussion during the doctors round at my bedside, expertly summing up the latest results, sounding as if she was a consultant with many years experience. And then when the doctors left she would gently offer to wash my hair to make me feel better. She was an extraordinary human being with what felt like encyclopaedic medical knowledge and an angelic touch.
And while we’re on the subject of angels, let’s not forget those who fly in from an agency. Brought in often at the last minute to cover a shortfall in staff, some of them from outside the UK with not so perfect English. Not got a great reputation outside hospitals – and I suspect among permanent staff within hospitals. I don’t buy it. A good nurse is a good nurse. The agency angels might not know the systems on the wards or have been on the compulsory course run by the hospital trust to allow them to give you your pills, but they are just as capable of making you feel better or worse as a patient. One of the best nurses I ever had was from an agency. Rupinder had come on a night shift and found me sat up straight in my bed with an oxygen mask on. I’d spent three long nights in that position, feeling unable to lie down to sleep because I couldn’t breathe. My kidneys were not working as they should, I was bloated with many kilograms of excess fluid and when I lay down it felt as if the water would rush into my lungs drowning me. I was scared and gasping for breath. The nameless registrar at the end of the bed had looked at me quizzically and told me there was really nothing to worry about. He prescribed me oxygen, and disappeared leaving me to spend yet another night bolt upright, awake listening to the beeps and snores around me. Rupinder could have left me that way too. Looking back, rather than there being a specific medical problem, I think I was probably experiencing panic attacks and she recognised that. So instead of retiring to the nurses station like the rest of the staff when the lights went out, she came back to my bed and got me up. She took me out onto a fire escape and got me doing relaxation breathing exercises over and over again. She did it the following night too, after which I lay down for the first time and slept.
And mostly it’s alot simpler than that. Nurses- if you’re reading this, it’s a cliche but guess what , that cheery smile and a two minute chat does make a difference. It’s like being singled out for attention by the most popular girl in class. It makes us feel better. And as a nurse, surely that has to be the main aim of your shift. To help make us better. We will be pathetically grateful to you when you do.