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Practice comment

"At Christmas, making a stand against routine can be enough"

The value of nursing lies in the opportunity to affect individual lives and the personal rewards that this brings - especially at Christmas

Christmas Eve - and the usual musty odour of boiled cabbage, stale urine and coal tar soap were disguised by the more welcoming aroma of mince pies and custard. The chipped magnolia paint was obscured by well-worn metallic decorations that had clearly done some service and were nearing the end of their working lives. A threadbare artificial Christmas tree was arrayed with fairy lights and paper crackers in a half-hearted effort to introduce a smattering of joy into the day room of the ward.
Older patients sat propped up in their usual posts, in regimented form around the outside of the room, staring at the relentless festive cheer transmitted by the television set that dominated the dismal room.
This was a hospital for older people, and I was on my geriatric placement (as it was known in those days) as a student nurse. The prospect of working Christmas in this dilapidated and depressing place did not fill my heart with Christmas spirit.
I was troubled by the stark contrast between the festivities on this ward and those of my family that I had left behind. Our home would be full of overexcited children stuffed full of sweets and fizzy drinks to sustain them through midnight mass. My parents would be launching a futile campaign for calm in the vain hope they could finish the last-minute present wrapping in peace. There would be music, noise and expectation.
Here at the hospital - apart from some limited Christmas trappings - it could have been any other day. We had decorations and mince pies, Santa hats and carols, but none of these were able to punctuate the routine and make it feel like Christmas.
I was told to put one lady to bed, ready for the night staff. Mrs Jenkins* was engrossed in James Bond. “It’s not Christmas without James Bond,” she said, and I agreed. “Let me go to bed when the film has finished,” she reasonably asked. So I left her enjoying the action.
Sister was not amused and insisted she was put into her bed before the night staff came on duty.
“But it’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “Yes - and the work still needs to be done,” was the mean reply.
I refused to do it in a display of solidarity with this lady. She was put to bed before the end of the film but at least I had made a stand - a stand for her, a stand for Christmas, and a stand against routine. “At least you had a go, dear,” she said and gave me a Quality Street - a purple one. It was then that Christmas arrived.
I knew then that working over Christmas was never going to have the same Christmas magic of home, but it was special none the less.
The value of nursing lies in the strength of the relationships we build, the opportunity to affect individual lives and the personal rewards that this brings. Mrs Jenkins taught me the thrill of being appreciated, and that, sometimes, it is simply enough to have a go.
* Name changed

Ruth Bailey is a practice nurse, Charter Medical Centre, Hove

Readers' comments (4)

  • When the Christmas off duty came out it was always dissapointing to see your name down for the shift - but generally we had fun and the ward staff did everything we could to make the patients day a happy one.
    My most overwhelming memory however is being the Bethnal Green Christmas Fairy and having to walk around the freezing hospital corridors (inbetween wards) in nowt but a tutu and tights - so cold in fact i had to adorn myself in tinsel to cover the obvious signs of how cold i actually was!!

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  • tinkerbell

    I have decided to go in on Christmas Day as Pippy Longstocking, don't know why, completely mad pal, and fed up with all this doom and gloom. I haven't quite got the outfit together yet, but will work with the tights as a starting point. We will try and have ourselves a 'merry little christmas' on our unit regardless. None of my colleagues will bat an eyelid as they know i am completely barking and as their ward sister I act as a good role model. I suggest we all have a 'pippy longstocking day' to cheer ourselves and our patients up

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  • by the way, Tinkerbell could you change your charming logo just for once to Pipi Langstrumpf so that we can see what you looked like? it's a great idea and the first time I have seen her name written in English which is very funny!

    My Swiss colleagues in my English group all in their 70s and 80s were horrified I had never heard of her. I think they considered it a great parental failing and an irreplaceable gap in my education! Sadly they are no longer with me to scold them for this shortcoming!

    I was quite concerned by my ignorance so I checked with a friend back home in the UK, a little older than me who I have known since the age of four, as I thought it might have been a European phenomenon unheard of in the UK, as many cultural things are, but sure enough she had also been brought up on Pippy!

    Although I now know what she looks like, and enjoyed the biography of her author on Swiss or Geman TV, I must confess I still haven't got around to discovering her on DVD, book, etc. but I am sure you and your team will make great ones. Have yourselves and your patients and their families a very Merry Christmas and a good one at home with your own families to not forgetting your work-life balance!

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  • tinkerbell

    Anonymous | 21-Dec-2011 4:44 am

    To be honest i didn't know anything about Pippy Longstocking myself until recently, her name just popped into my head when trying to work out who to be on Christmas Day at work and i decided to look her up. I now have the stripey tights and my colleagues have told me that she wears ankle boots etc and are adding to my costume and tell me she goes round helping people all the time. Sounds good to me.

    Now that we're on a roll others will be coming in as Mother Christmas, Tinkerbell or whatever they can get together as an outfit over Christmas Day and Boxing Day. We are the National Elves Service after all. We will all be having lunch or supper with our patients, relatives and stuffing our faces to make up for the rest of the year when we mostly survive on a bowl of steam and are not allowed to be seen eating. As there will be no management around, apart from me, and i don't really count, as will never follow insane rules, we will all be having a whale of a time with our patients, relatives, housekeepers etc., and all be sitting down for, crime of all crimes a cup a tea and some toast if we fancy it.

    We have enough boxes of chocolates to sink a battleship and mince pies and shortbread to feed an army. The office is chock a block with secret santa presents for the staff and all the patients presents are ready to go on christmas morning. There will be lots of singing and dancing and hopefully the salvation army will be in to play for us.

    In the New Year we will return to the doom and gloom of austerity cuts, global recession, privatisation of the NHS, eurozone bankruptcy, wars and rumours of wars but are putting it to one side for the moment as life's too short.

    Everyone have a yourselves a merry little Christmas too.

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