Question: What do the ward cleaner, the consultant, and the two nurses have in common?
Answer: Love and pain.
During my three week stay in hospital earlier this year, I was wonderfully cared for by NHS staff. Each with their own specific specialities together they formed a caring team. As they went about their work I watched and pondered on what drew them to their various jobs, especially as they were clearly overworked, generally under-paid and sometimes unappreciated. What follows are reflections on four of the NHS professionals who deeply moved me and the significance of love and pain in their work. The chaplains were also part of the caring team, but I shall be writing about them in a separate blog.
Firstly, there was the lady who cleaned the floors. Always chatty and willing to help with tasks that were beyond my reach, she cleaned the floors with a care and dedication that I have never witnessed before. It was not a perfunctory sloshing water on the floor and quickly mopping it up so that she could move on to the next patient. She did her work purposefully and reflectively, aware of the importance of her task in the controlling of infection. It was almost a work of art. As I watched, my mind went to a film I had seen on Michelangelo and I found myself reflecting on his dedication with his brush and her dedication with her very different brush. I also thought of a news report that emerged at the height of the Covid pandemic when two cleaners, dressed in full protective clothing, emerged, buckets in hand, from a ward and were greeted by a line of clapping doctors and nurses, also dressed in full protective clothing. It was clear that, for this ward cleaner, the job was a vocation.
Secondly, there was the consultant. He, too, had great dedication. Nothing was too much trouble. Clearly describing my condition, I could see him digging deep within himself to find the right treatment not simply for my illness but for me as a person. He spoke about recent research on the illness and various ways of treating it. He was realistic about outcomes. His presence and reassurance immediately before and soon after he conducted my spinal surgery was a great comfort and encouragement.
Thirdly, there were the nurses. One nurse, a single mother, told me that at the beginning of the outbreak of the pandemic, she volunteered to work on the Covid wards. This was before there were Covid vaccinations and protective clothing was hit-and-miss. What courage and commitment.
The second nurse was a former paratrooper. He was a burley man who had been invalided out of the army after an injury from a parachute jump. As I watched him making my bed I reflected on the hands that were gently and carefully folding the sheets had, at one time, been guiding a parachute and firing weapons. He was training to be a paramedic and was animated telling me how much he was looking forward to his chosen career.
Four very different people drawn into very different roles in the one health-care profession. When asked what drew them, the reply was that they wanted to help those who needed help. Some also spoke of doing extra hours to help out because of a staff shortage exacerbated by Covid. They were undertaking work which is more than a job. It is a calling. They are called to love and care which is an incredible commitment as those who are suffering and in pain are not always at their most lovable.
But there is another factor that unites health-professional and patient. Pain. Human beings at their best try to alleviate the pain of the suffering. But pain, as well as potentially being an agony, is also a mystery. Generally we want to avoid it, yet pain can be a pathway to new life. Mothers experience this in a profound way as they give birth. It may be necessary to accept the pain of a particular treatment on the pathway to health. When the nurse came to administer medication early in the morning, I was asked how I was. I sometimes replied (especially after surgery), ‘I am breathing and I am aching, both of which tell me that I am alive.’ Pain can be physical, psychological or spiritual or a combination of all three. All human beings experience pain at some point during life: health care professionals and patient are drawn together through the common experience of pain.
The cleaner, the consultant and the nurses (and many others) form a team. But there is always another member of that team. The patient. My experience was that health care professionals do not work on the patient but work with the patient. In a well-functioning team, each member will have a lead role at some point, so too within the hospital ward. Sometimes it is the doctor, sometimes it is the nurse and sometimes it is the patient who takes the lead. The team is formed around the patient yet, for the team to work properly, all members have to be aware of the needs of the others. This includes the patient needing to be alert to the needs of other team members who may have too much to do or may be passing through difficulties or wanting to share triumphs and joys. Just as the patient is not a body to be worked on by medics, so too, hospital staff are not NHS functionaries nor are they servants of the patient.
Love and pain are companions in the lives of every human being from the moment of birth to the moment of death. The mysterious relationship between love and pain is also at the heart of the Christian faith as seen in the life, suffering and death of Jesus Christ. My recent experience has taught me that it is in times of illness that love and pain come into sharp focus for the team around the patient as well as for the patient.
We all know that the NHS as an institution is passing through tough times. What is really remarkable is that despite the challenges it faces, it can offer such high calibre treatment and attract such high calibre staff. The fact that it is able to do both these things is an indication of its greatness, its resilience and the deep affection, often unexpressed, in which it is held across the country.
I cannot thank enough the NHS teams that have worked with me and brought me through some difficult times. I came to realise that it was not cleaners, consultants, nurses and others that were looking after me, but saints and martyrs in disguise.
Such nuanced observations are so helpful when public discourse and comment can be so dualistic and divisive. Thank you, Brian
Very detailed material!
Thanks for the work you’ve done!