Keep Quiet or the Nurse is in Trouble…

The importance of keeping things tidy….

A bit of light relief this week.

I trained as a nurse in the seventies. I had long dreamed of fancy uniforms, handsome doctors and wiping fevered brows. I encountered all of these in various degrees but soon came to realise that there was a lot of hard work and long hours involved. The three years of training were often hard and many times I was tempted to give up. Had my school careers officer been right when he felt the best thing for me was to work at the local shirt factory back in my home town? Spurred on by the thought of an alternative life running up cuffs, collars and shirt tails, I kept going and I look back on my nursing career mostly with great affection. I can still remember some of my patients to this day, and the sadness and humour encountered along the way. I find too, that I have a pool of experience to work from which has helped me hugely with my writing career. Compassion and kindness, to me, are the foremost requirements for a good nurse, along with a calm exterior, but this calm exterior can crumble on the odd occasion….

I had been a student nurse for about six months and was gradually getting used to the unsociable hours, the baffling orders barked from the end of the ward and the mysterious terminology. A rigid routine emerged and seemed to supersede any eventuality. Ward work had to go on – always, and no matter what lurked behing the patient’s curtains. Soon I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but working within the hospital walls. Time off was limited and a social life was virtually non existent. But what made up for all the strict protocol was the patients themselves. People from all walks of life – rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown, in various circumstances, all together under one roof, all on a level playing field if you like, and all experiencing the challenges that illness brings.

It is a fact of human nature that when we are up against it we show our courage – courage we didn’t know we had, and sometimes in the darkest of situations we find some humour….

One ward I worked on was run like clockwork by an absolutely terrifying Ward Sister who had everyone, even the most senior doctors, quaking in their boots. She was tall, thin as a rake, had tightly permed hair and steel rimmed spectacles. I could not imagine her wearing anything but her pristine uniform and nor could I imagine her ever partaking in anything that required a modicum of fun. She only spoke to juniors like me when barking orders, the rest of the time we were required to flatten ourselves against the wall and be as inconspicuous as possible when she swept past us with her usual  imperious look in place.  She could convey her displeasure with the merest lift of an eyebrow as she viewed the overall tidiness of her ward  – any stray newspaper or wrapper on a locker would be pounced on and woe betide the nurse who was remiss. One couldn’t doubt her dedication or the way her ward was run, however, and although the patients were totally in awe of her she was regarded with the utmost respect. Patient care was second to none and often she was still on her ward checking all was well long after her shift had ended.

One week we had a particularly rambunctious group of men on the ward – it was a men’s orthopaedic ward so usually they weren’t actually ill but perhaps recovering from operations or fractures. They usually got on well together and were often swapping lewd stories or jokes and the ambulant ones were often to be found playing cards in the day room. We had trouble keeping them under control at times but they soon learned to quieten down when Sister was around. We loved spending time chatting to these patients when we had the chance as they brought some normality to the ward and provided some light relief to the somewhat stifling atmosphere. One particular guy who I will call Jimmy had been on the ward for several weeks and became a great ally. He’d help with the tea trolley in the mornings and was allowed certain privileges. He also was good at helping the new patients settle in and he could be relied upon to keep an eye out for Sister and letting us know if she was on the warpath.

Tuesday morning at 11 am was always the Consultation’s ward round  – this was particularly stressful if you were on duty as just being in the vicinity was nerve racking. You just prayed you weren’t asked a question you didn’t know the answer to or sent to look for something you couldn’t find and were made to look embarrassed in front of the whole team. On the exact stroke of 11 Sister would unlock the trolley bearing the patients notes and stand poised and ready for the off. The consultant would sweep in followed by a group of hapless looking medical students struggling to keep up. The group would slowly make the way round the ward, going from bed to bed – the Consultant firing questions both at the nervous patients in the beds and the quivering students who tended to be rendered speachless when asked even the simplest question about a patient’s condition. Sister, as usual was calm and collected and kept all running smoothly.

On particular Tuesday I was standing in my usual flattened position against the wall watching the round take place when I noticed to my horror that somehow a new patient unaware of ward protocol had unpacked some sandwiches he had brought in from home and had laid out a veritable picnic on his bed, complete with a napkin. He was also nonchalantly reading the newspaper whilst enjoying his sandwich at the same time. From my position by the wall I edged slowly down the Ward so as not to attract attention until I caught Jimmy’s eye. No words were needed. There was just a shocked look in Jimmy’s eyes followed by a slight twitch and slight loss of colour in his face. I can still see in my mind’s eye what happened next. In his boldly stripped standard issue hospital dressing gown, Jimmy somehow managed to move stealthy up the ward until he disappeared under the end bed. Slowly sliding along underneath, bed by bed, and keeping his stiff leg somehow angled to a safe position he kept going until he was level with Freddy, the new patient. A stripey arm appeared on the bed, feeling around for the sandwiches, and slowly both the napkin and the sandwiches disappeared from view. Freddy, realising his tasty snack was missing, peered out from behind his paper. Jimmy’s head appeared over the side of the bed.

    “Fold your paper up mate and forget about your sandwiches quick as you like” whispered Jimmy from the corner of his mouth. “Stay where you are and say nothing!” With that, he ducked down again and slithered back down the ward. Luckily, the ward round was particularly slow on the day and the team had been seemingly unaware of the unusual actions of some of the patients! Freddy stayed like a statue for the rest of the ward round, even struggling to answer the Consultant when he asked him how he was.

The Consultant finished his round and went to have his customary cup of tea in Sister’s office and the lowly students ambled off, relieved it was over. I went to check on Jimmy, worried that his escapade may have set his recovery back a bit, but he was full of laughter.

The day carried on at its usual busy pace and all seemed in order. Sister came over to me at the end of the shift to dismiss me.

   “You may go now Nurse. Make sure you dispose of those sandwiches on the way out”.

Maybe she was human after all.

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Moving on From Anxiety…

I wrote about anxiety last week, and how it can affect us in so many ways – from the way we sound and appear,  to how we can be affected physically. Even when we deal well with anxiety the anxious thoughts still sometimes hover and wait in the wings – waiting for the guard to drop and the mindfulness to lose its helpful grip for a while. If, like me, you spend a lot of time reading about self-help and enlightenment you will know what I mean when I say that mindfulness and reaching that absolute place of understanding where we ‘get it’ and nothing can bother us any more is definitely an ongoing process which needs constant monitoring! (Although, if you have ‘got it’ you may well disagree with me…actually, you probably won’t be reading this anyway, you will be somewhere on cloud nine.)

I can’t recall a time in the past when there was so much helpful information readily available to us on the subject of self-help and spiritual fitness. It’s a good thing. It’s a great and empowering thing. There is something for all of us, whether we lean toward religious solace, a more healthy body and mind, spiritual advancement, meditation, yoga, finding the best retreat, positivity workshops…… I could go on…..

The benefit in all this help and information is huge. With all the help at our disposal we will find something we really find beneficial for sure. We will, sooner or later, have our own particular author or life-style guru who really speaks to us and shows us a way forward when we need it from time to time.

I was a nurse for many years, and I can think of countless times when I had to dig deep and give comfort. To be able to reach out and support people in times of tremendous need was of utmost importance, especially when busy and working in a stressful environment. I hope I gave my best. Mostly I feel I did. But it would have been good to have had more helpful ways of releasing the tension after a busy shift than going to the pub around the corner from the hospital!  Maybe I wasn’t ready then to read the books that would have been helpful – perhaps I was finding my own way then and gaining experience in life. It is said that the teacher comes when the pupil is ready.

And I think it is good to remind ourselves sometimes that simple acts of kindness are within us all. To remember that inherent wisdom and  compassion is deep within us, even embedded in our DNA. We are braver and wiser than we think. Mindfulness and deep thinking has been around far longer than we have . Self-help is not really new. Ancient philosophers had figured out life over 2,000 years ago. Quotes from so long ago never cease to amaze me and make me realise that everything changes yet nothing changes!

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’         Heraclitus (lived around 500 years BC in Ephesus.)

Like many big thinkers, Heraclitus was born wealthy in a city, but lived in the woods to contemplate the universe.

The sage ” is ready to use all situations and doesn’t waste anything. This is called embodying the light.”

Lao Tzu alive around 600 BC in China.

The Lao Tzu started Taoism 2,500 years ago in China. He was legendary – Lao Tzu really just means ‘old man’ and nobody knows who he actually was. He certainly made a big impression! More importantly, he left us the ‘Tao Te Ching” which is full of ancient wisdom.

To rank the effort above the prize may be called love.”        Confucius, alive in China around 500 BC.

Confucius is probably the most influential person in Chinese history. He emphasised what we today call grit: finding the value in trying and not just arriving.

The unexamined life is not worth living.”         Socrates Lived in Athens around 450 BC

Socrates embodied the fundamental spirit of Western thought that you have the responsibility of being in charge of your own life.

Perhaps the most beautiful words of all ;

  “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.

Rumi, poet born 1207

So today we are lucky with the resources we have  – both the old and the new.  We may just need to remind ourselves to open our hearts to new learning. To rid ourselves of negative thoughts and change our thinking so we can move forward with positivity and embrace change whilst learning also from the past. Nothing, and I mean nothing that is good is ever lost even when it is centuries old.

As human beings we will always be searching for a newer, better and easier way to find fulfillment. Next time your heart is a little heavy, just remember there is always a way forward. And as I have said before, if you are anxious you are not alone. You can take comfort from the fact that for centuries we have yearned to find new wisdom and ways to help us move forward and probably will for centuries to come. And we have survived.

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Pull Yourself Together Nurse!

There has been so much in the news lately about our emergency services, our hospital workers, medics, fireman and all the heroes we couldn’t possibly do without. Should they have a pay rise – excuse me? Should they have a pay rise – of course we know the answer to that!

I thought it may be interesting this week to interview a nurse who trained in the 1970’s!

What made you decide to become a nurse?

I had wanted to become a nurse ever since I can remember. I never thought about doing anything else. To me the dream of becoming a nurse was always with me. I devoured every book about nursing I could get my hands on, and I loved a program around at the time called ‘Emergency Ward 10’. I think the thought of wearing a nurses uniform, especially the iconic cloak criss-crossed at the front, played a part in my ambition to tread the wards! And of course, it was in my heart to care for people.

How easy was it to be accepted for training?

Not that easy! Mainly because my careers advisor at school was affiliated to the local shirt factory and his main mission in life was to recruit young girls to work there. He was convinced nursing would be too tough for me and gave me no help at all. Not to be deterred I applied to a teaching hospital in Bristol and was accepted. It’s strange, because I was very shy and quiet, but I found determination from somewhere!

Did you settle in well to your new life away from home?

No! I was very homesick and at just eighteen years of age and having never been away from home before, it was a big shock to the system! The nurse’s home where I had lodgings was a former mental hospital – an austere,  grey brick building situated on the outskirts of the city. We were bussed  in to the hospital every day, or night if we were on night shift, – quite a sight with thirty or so ‘angels’ as we were sometimes called, all seated in rows with starched caps on.

But you settled in eventually?

Yes, I did settle eventually but it did take a while. There was so much to learn and the hours were long and arduous. Also, we had to learn to cope with life and death at a relatively young age. There is nothing like being left alone in the middle of the night looking after a ward full of sick patients to concentrate the mind!

What do you think of now when you look back?

I remember so many of my patients to this day. Laughing with them and crying with them. I remember the bond with my fellow nurses; the times you had to laugh in dire circumstances otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to cope. I remember collapsing in helpless giggles during a practical exam when an arm fell off the dummy patient – ‘Nurse! You may have killed the patient  – go back to your seat and pull yourself together!’ I remember wistfully watching friends who weren’t nurses going out at weekends to enjoy themselves whilst I was invariably working. I remember some of the dishy doctors walking around importantly in their flapping white coats. I remember being told we could only have three inches of water in our baths at the nurse’s home so as not to be wasteful. I remember being constantly hungry and the awful hospital food. I remember the weirdness of eating gristly beef casserole at breakfast after coming off night duty. I remember bossy ward sisters who made us tremble with fear as they entered the ward. I remember a lot of unfairness and petty rules and a fellow nurse running off in despair when being reprimanded for pinching a sausage from the kitchen. I remember kindness too. Doctors crushed with tiredness after being on call for many hours and still managing to tenderly lift an elderly lady up who had fallen out of bed. I remember the commaraderie when working in the accident and emergency department at night – the policeman coming in to share a cup of coffee and have a quick game of cards during a rare quiet spell in the early hours.

Would you still become a nurse if you had the time again?

That’s a tough one. I like to think I would as it taught me so much about life and I wouldn’t  have encountered so many deep experiences anywhere else.  Also I met my husband during my training. But honestly, when you hear that nurses are leaving in droves to work abroad now it shows how demoralised nurses are and I’m not sure I would want to work under the difficult and strained conditions.

So how do you view the profession today?

I haven’t worked in hospital for a good while now so it is difficult to judge first hand.  All I can say from what I’ve noticed when visiting people is that a lot of nurses do their  best but time issues and understaffing mean that a lot of the caring side of nursing seems to have disappeared to the detriment of the patients. Back in the sixties and seventies it wasn’t perfect, but the wards were kept scrupulously clean; wards were often ruled with a rod of iron, but there was order. There was plenty of clean laundry, a ward clerk on every ward and most importantly, patients were not sent home until they were fit to be discharged. Sadly I have had first hand experience that shows this isn’t always the case now. I would still say though, that there are a lot of wonderful and caring nurses out there who do their very best under difficult circumstances.

A poem about Night Duty!

Please don’t run nurse

And please turn off the light,

Your patient may be getting worse

But it’s the middle of the night.

Call the doctor to attend

The latest emergency case

Then go and lay the trolley up,

And sterilise the place.

Make sure all the patients

Are safely in their beds,

I’ll be coming round to check

That they have had their meds.

And be sure to know every name

And diagnosis too,

Of every patient in your care,

Or I’ll be reporting you.

Write up the notes before morning,

Make the porridge and the tea,

Get everybody washes and fed

Then report back to me.

Go home and get some sleep

You’ve got six more nights ahead,

So get used to working extra hard,

While your friends are home in bed.

(c) Lyn Halvorsen

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