A Job For Life

I work in a hospital. And as such am privy to things a large percentage of the public does not know nor does it care to know. At the risk of being overly theatrical I exist behind the curtain, so to speak. This isn’t particularly unique; the UK NHS is the third largest employer in the world, behind the Chinese army and the Indian railroad. We employ A LOT of people, in a lot of different jobs. I’m a “frontline employee”, that is work in a clinical environment trying to fix people. Or at least stop people from, y’know, dying.
A theatre staff nurse, or an operating room technician as the Americans might say, I work in the theatres, assisting the medical staff, monitoring patients and keeping the system running.
It’s a very important job apparently. Or so my father says. Although he doesn’t say it to me directly, no unfortunately my father is one of those men who cannot give praise to someone directly. I hear this praise second-hand from third parties. My mother, her friends, his friends, my friends, everyone.

An important job.
Hmm… I watched Firefly when it first came out, and in an episode a character muses on the premise that as all psychiatrists have to be psychoanalysed before they’re allowed to practice so should all surgeons be cut upon before they get to be let loose upon the unsuspecting public.
I agree with this.
I think such a perspective comes from my own experiences. I have, unfortunately, been a patient in hospital on multiple occasions. And have undergone plus 10 General Anaesthetics for a whole myriad of reasons from having my tonsils out to having pieces of bone chiselled off my skull to having my thyroid tinkered with. the last one produced a sexy scar across my larynx that took an age to fade and now makes me look like I’ve been hanging in the stereotypical rough part of town where bar fights occur on a regular basis.
The last time I was an inpatient it was just prior to Xmas 2008. The original surgery (concerning my undercarriage, it’s all I’m going to say) had developed complications and so I was rushed back into hospital as an emergency to have my surgeon try and fix the damage. He wouldn’t in the end and I would have to endure two further surgeries over the next three years but for now this was the longest time I was in hospital. Three days and nights, which if you know the NHS is an age if only from the financial perspective. These days’ expectant mothers can deliver their babies in the morning and be discharged the very afternoon. Beds are important, Bevin would so be proud.

After the initial fix, a process too graphic for these pages, I had to stay for two days for monitoring and IVAB’s. Having antibiotics delivered via an IV system is a major pain for all involved, primarily in this case because they were due to be delivered at 9pm and had to run for an hour. so, including the inevitable delays it would be somewhere close to 11pm before I could get up, wash and get ready for bed.
Which, if anyone reading this has been in hospital knows, is a rare occurrence.
Sleep, something so precious for recovery, doesn’t happen in hospitals. The lights are always on, people are always on the move, surgery continues, night staff give painkillers and do checks and underneath all this is the deep, slightly sour repulsion of sharing your bedspace with complete strangers.

In my case it was with two other women, Sally and Danielle. Danielle had just endured her own three hour surgery that day and was still pretty sedated, Sally was in for something personal of her own and had been there a week while the Powers-That-Be tried to figure it out. Of the three of us only I was mobile. The line in the back of my left hand aside I was able to limp about, slowly, reading the pamphlets in the ward reception about everything from smoking cessation (big NHS point!), diabetes checks, STD’s, reminders to keep appointments and the necessary tables to covert pounds to kilograms and vice versa.
There was no TV room for NHS patients. There was one for Private patients, but no one was in it, I couldn’t find the remote and it had all the warmth of the gates of JFK, so I gave it a miss. You could hire the TV (note TV singular) for a fee and when Sally did she promptly received a rickety thing on a wobbly stand with an aerial that gave every channel we managed to pick up a layer of snow regardless of how much we fiddled. She sent it back the following day.

The good news was that the hospital was a self-contained unit. If you could get out of your ward then you could get to the lifts, the hospital café, the shop, the koi pond (seriously!), the stained glass windows and the coffee shop. The shop being different from the café in the sense that it was a chain, Costa putting its royal UK-only foot down and selling mediocre coffee to all who had the coins.
But most important of all was the vending machines. Which, were open all night and provided you with the food necessary to survive the NHS experience. And being the only member of our impromptu trio who was mobile I was assigned to task of getting stuff after everything else was closed for the night.

Okay, cue the Mission Impossible theme tune.
Armed with coins and wearing a threadbare dressing gown over a hospital shift, and barefoot I sneaked away, down two flights of stairs, across a landing and a connection to the main blood clinic, past the café (shut), Costa (shut), main hospital shop (shut) and to the vending machines. The koi looked on with interest.
All of this might sound boring to some, but it felt like I was the only person awake in the entire building. The world was asleep outside but there I was. Padding about silently, streetlights and moonlight outside and only the security light present inside making all the shadows longer, almost tactile. The silence was absolute; the coins impossibly loud as they hit the machine’s mechanism and the bang clatter as they discharged made me jump as it reverberated. It told me just how loud the waking world is, roaring and self-important.

I did this supply run with the sole intention of having something to do. No books, no TV, and nothing to write on (emergency admission caught me on the hop) meant I was horrifically bored for most of the day. I didn’t need the soda or the cookies or the snickers bar Sally insisted I grab for myself as payment. I just wanted to see the hospital when it was only open for me.
No one was there, down near all the distractions (koi aside). The front doors were locked for security; the only waking staff were on the wards or in the theatres. The rest of the place was as quiet as the grave. The feeling around me was one of magic. When you do something many others don’t you see things that many others don’t see. Or don’t get the chance to. Here was something that seemed so frantic for twenty hours in every day now in exhausted repose, stretched out slumbering. The only movement coming from a blonde girl with a line in one hand toting her stash back to her bedmates on the floors above.

We all ate late that night. That was until the head nurse on duty came in and told us all to get to bed. This was in itself a joke of the highest order; if you want to recreate my nights in hospital then go to bed with the bedroom light on, the thermostat on maximum and the TV on loud. See how you sleep.

Two days later the surgeon said I could go. I hadn’t had a shower in three days, my skin was caked in the muck of its own creation and I was sleep deprived, rail thin and a pale as a ghost. But I could go. Great.
Saying goodbye to Sally and Danielle (I never saw them again) I set out to get home, which required a taxi, a rail-ticket and several strangers asking me if I was ok as I stumbled round London’s main station, ID bracelet still visible on my wrist, all my stuff in an NHS carrier bag.
I guess strangers can be friendlier than we give them credit for. Though another part of me thinks that such concern was down to the unease I would give them if I suddenly collapsed in front of them, forcing them to do something. I’m a theatre staff nurse, I’m cynical.

So what’s one situation got to do with the other?
Am I more compassionate now that I’ve seen how the proverbial “other half” live?
Nope, not really. I mean, I don’t want to sound cold but I don’t think my experiences as night-time provider of sugary snacks in any way validates me as a superior Health Care Professional.
[We’re the NHS, we have more acronyms than NASA]

Maybe it made me think that just because you work, or in that case were a patient, for the system doesn’t mean you have to take your cues from the system when it comes to the level of care your provide. Or receive. If I told those night nurses to go and get the three of us what we wanted from the desolate reception I would have been told that wasn’t possible. They were too busy. Which they were, BTW, night nursing is a sorely understaffed profession.

I think the observation here is one of conflict. How the organisation can be so rigid and direct, often on account of its sheer size, that it stops seeing the personal things (like compassion, individuality, care, trust, love) for the sake of the whole. At the same time the individuals who work/are patients in its sphere of influence have to respect its authority in order to survive, either as a patient or an employee, often at the very risk of losing their own autonomy because the contrast between both organisation and individual is so vast.

As you might have realised I can’t easily stop being who I am. I believe the term is “marching to the beat of one’s own drum”. I do. And I am.

I think sometimes that all the different labels we choose to stick on people to define their individual mind-sets, that all the boxes we put people in, the pigeonholes and definitions, there aren’t enough for all of us. We’re all different. Our brains are different. We lead, or we follow, or we get out of the way.

Or we wander off and do our own thing. At night, barefoot, for the sole purpose of giving those who can’t the candy they really deserve.


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