Working at a suburban respite centre for children with significant care needs, the nurse Christie Watson noticed that families in the neighbouring houses would often stare at her clients, “openly and without any shame”. Sometimes Watson would shout over: “Come and say hi!” or “Come and play!” But her shouts were met with silence by those who lacked “the courage to care”.
Watson’s heartbreaking first nursing memoir – The Language of Kindness (2018) – focused on the emotional exhaustion suffered by medics in the NHS. This, her second, now celebrates the “love and laughter” that caregivers are privileged to share, even in the most devastating human situations.
It’s certainly hard to imagine worse situations than those Watson describes here. But she repeatedly finds the beam of light in the darkest rooms. So there’s a teacher, stoically cradling her seven-year-old daughter in the final stages of Aids, surrounded by her child’s beautiful pictures. There’s the elderly woman who has spent her life caring for a severely autistic sister who smears her own faeces on the walls – but says “she inspires me to carry on, every day”. And there’s the rapid recovery of the mentally ill veterinary nurse who hacked into her own womb with a cat spaying kit.
Watson is no saint. She struggles to hold down her frustration when faced with parents who didn’t vaccinate their daughter against measles and, consequently, will spend the rest of their lives caring for a formerly brilliant child who’s been left severely brain damaged by the disease. Her compassion is more sorely stretched by the violent offenders she must help, including a man who kicked his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach, knocking her downstairs and leaving her for dead.
But she finds the generosity to take his photograph when he holds his premature infant and observes the injured baby settle at the sound of his father’s singing. She also treats a teenage victim of knife crime, watching his aggression melt away as the seriousness of his condition becomes clear. With her keen eye for social inequality, she notes that, as a black boy from a deprived estate with disengaged parents, this kid was always at risk of involvement in gang culture. When he dies, it is his school nurse who’s left in tears, holding his basketball.
Watson is a terrific guide to the gritty reality of hospital life. Recalling a frantic dash to an emergency call, she’ll point out a patch of dead grass and explain it was killed when a patient tried to drink bleach. She snorts at the absurdity of swanky new architecture which heats rooms to unhygienic temperatures. She despairs at the fact that Britain has only 6.6 intensive care units per 100,000 people compared with Germany’s 29.2 per 100,000.
Beyond the wards, Watson ventures into her patients’ homes with district nurse Sylwia, whose willingness to chat and help out with household tasks offers a salve for the loneliness which is now a public health epidemic. The charity Age UK says over one million older people regularly go more than a month without speaking to a friend, relative or neighbour. Loneliness, says Watson, causes “as many deaths as obesity or smoking and can increase the risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, depression and cognitive decline.” This has inevitably worsened during the pandemic. And Watson – whose first memoir ended with her resignation – has rejoined the NHS to help out. This book ends with her stepping back into her scrubs.
But she makes a strong argument for nurses taking their place at decision-making tables as well as bedsides. The absence of a nurse on the Covid-19 Sage advisory panel, she fumes, “should be unacceptable to all of us. The reason, I am told, is that Sage is made up of scientists. But, of course, nurses are scientists.” They are front-line experts in the management of human crises. The public consistently name nurses as the nation’s most trusted professionals. We have never needed their expertise more than we do now. As Watson concludes: “It is high time that nurses of every background have a seat at the political table – for all our sakes.”
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