I am no stranger to trauma and, having practised for over 20 years, I’m no stranger to nursing either. I thought I knew what good care meant and how to make a difference – now I really do.
For three months, my life turned upside down. My dad ended up in intensive care following a massive haemorrhage after routine surgery. For three months, I camped out on three units while dad endured four more life-threatening bleeds, a cardiac arrest, three major operations and countless investigations. These three months demonstrated to me the real power of nursing.
I have always known that it is the little things that make a difference but to really feel this is something else. Little things, said and done, have the power to make the situation bearable or to amplify distress.
Acts of kindness brought comfort: the healthcare assistant who appeared with coffee in the middle of the night, just after we had been told that dad was unlikely to survive; the junior staff nurse who sat in supportive silence, while we waited to hear if he was alive. There was everyday kindness: the thoughtful ward clerk who looked after my overnight bags; the concern for my battle-weary mum, and the tireless feeding of our ceaseless hunger for information.
Of course, it wasn’t all good. Emotional exhaustion depleted my resources, and thoughtless nursing caused me disproportionate distress: the sister who told me off for exiting the wrong way on an unfamiliar unit; the senior staff nurse who told me “not to worry” as he suctioned 300ml of frank blood from my comatose dad’s tube. There was the matron who could not understand my concern that dad’s feed had been delayed for 12 hours; and the nurse who, for two hours, failed to find a colleague to help her sit up my spluttering dad. I know as well as the next nurse that sometimes you have to wait. Now I know the agony waiting brings.
I liked to find dad washed and shaved, with his lines labelled, and I worried that the nurses were not in control on days when this was not the case. He looked so cosseted when I found him snuggled under a bubble blanket, and so lost when I found him unshaven with his sheets askew.
It was the high-tech, high-intervention stuff that saved my dad, but it was the attention to detail that truly made the difference. I found enormous comfort in the way the nurses supported his swollen sausage fingers on little rolled-up towels, and wrote his favourite programmes on the whiteboard near his bed. When they remembered not to speak into his deaf ear, I knew he mattered. I was touched when they remembered my name and told him I was there.
I am one of the lucky ones – my dad came home. Thoughtless care and shoddy nursing, while upsetting, were outweighed by compassion. Yet shoddy care exists and is tolerated. It needs to be named and rectified for not only the distress it causes but also the dilution of care and the damage it does to the profession.
Small acts of caring and concern kept my family going. We need to treasure this ability and foster its growth. It is easy to underestimate the impact of nursing actions. When you are in the middle of the maelstrom, good nursing is everything.
Ruth Bailey is a practice nurse, Charter Medical Centre, Hove