The news review magazine, The Week, once had a front cover depicting a nurse running through a hospital ward, obviously in a terrible hurry and clutching an armful of books and university diplomas. She was ignoring the patients, and who could blame her? She had degrees to earn. The point was to suggest that making nursing a profession which required additional academic excellence might dissolve a basic human element from that profession: Caring for others. That cover caught my eye and pulled certain memories from my psychological hard-drive.
When I was nine years of age, my GP diagnosed me with appendicitis and told me that I needed to go to hospital where ‘they’ might need to ‘operate’. I had been to hospital for different things – even by nine – so had no fear of hospital, but I had never been ‘under the knife’. Sat in the GP surgery with my mum, I fought the urge to cry and won. Just.
The hospital was only a five minute walk from the GP and we walked there. I was in agony, bent-double, wondering how a mild stomach-ache could become something quite so red, sharp and nasty.
The casualty department was stuffed with humans, all rushing about, going about whatever their business was. The doctors wore white coats, the nurses wore proper tunics with those paper hats pinned into their hair, and the porters were dressed like prison officers; wearing those thick, military style jumpers with patches on the elbows and shoulders. There was chaos, certainly, but underscored with efficiency, and the efficiency came before compassion and being ‘nice’. Some of the nurses – those in dark-blue uniforms – seemed quite strict and unable to suffer fools. Somehow, I was processed into the system and found myself lying on a bed in a cubicle with my mum next to me on a plastic chair. A man came and took some blood. He needed to do this to ‘count the cells’. A little later I was wheeled up to the ward – a ward for children – and settled into a bed to wait to be wheeled to the operating theatre.
After I awoke, perhaps still a little confused, I asked a nurse if I had had my operation. She said I had. I touched the area on my stomach and a small white plaster covered the area. All done.
The nurses were the opposite of the one from the magazine cover. Not once did I get the sense I was being looked after in an icy, academic environment. The nurses had plenty of personal warmth. They would come and take my temperature and slip a small glass thermometer into my mouth. ‘Under the tongue, Poppett,’ they would say. I’d watch as they held my wrist and stared at their strange upside-down watches which they all had pinned to their tunics. I didn’t know what they were doing. After this was done they would take the thermometer out of my mouth and flick their wrists – I supposed, to re-set it, then dropped it back in the plastic holder above the bed. This seemed to happen time and again. It broke up the day.
Waiting for a visit was never pleasant. I would ask a nurse (as if they would know) when my mum was coming, and they’d say ‘It won’t be long, angel’ or ‘she’ll be here soon’. They always reassured and smiled when they did it. I’d hate watching the doors onto the ward, though. When they opened my eyes would flick up from a comic or open from a doze to see if the person coming in was visiting me. When the person coming to see me – either my mum or dad – had managed to get through the doors and a little way toward my bed without me seeing, and then I looked up, that was always the best way to notice them. That way made it a surprise. It was better somehow.
The care was excellent: straightforward with no fancy procedures or obsessions. I was looked after in a compassionate, yet ‘no nonsense’ way. It worked.
One afternoon, the local Catholic Priest visited the ward. My mum and dad were both visiting. Fr. O’Sullivan. He was Irish. He placed one of his hands on my head and spoke some words. I cannot remember the words but they were some kind of blessing, a request for a full recovery. My dad shook his hand and thanked him. (My dad is a baptised Catholic. Though a none confessing and significantly lapsed one.) I made a full recovery and left hospital. A week or so later I was visited at home by the district Nurse who removed the stitches. (This is an entirely separate story. The procedure was very painful and this woman, I hope, is still burning in hell.) That, I thought, would be the end of the matter.
My dad, however, had other ideas. I was listening to him talk to my mum and he said “I owe him, I owe him” several times over. I put it together he was talking about the Irish Priest who had blessed me and asked God for a full recovery. Well, a full recovery was what I got, so why not? Sensible if you’re a catholic, I suppose. His attitude seemed to me, however, rather dismissive of the efforts of the medical persons who sorted the problem. These include the GP, Dr Preston, who sent me to hospital; the surgeon – a Polish fellow called Dr Spit – who performed the operation, and a ward full of nurses who made sure I was fed, watered, cleaned and, generally speaking, looked after, while I was their guest. There must have been others who helped without me being all that aware of it or them. (The anaesthetist who calculated the correct level of anaesthetic to knock me out and managed to get it right so I am here to type these words twenty-six years later comes to mind.)
My mum took care of this point, however. On my last day on the ward, when I was dressed and ready to leave, she gave me a thank you card to take to the ward Sister, a friendly blonde lady. I gave it to her and her words to me were: “thank you, sausage.”
To date, I have not been Baptised and remain significantly unCatholic. I have, however, a healthy interest in nurses with blonde hair.