It began as a simple trip to the pet shop, Fish-R-Us.
My daughter has a near encyclopaedic knowledge of fish: “That’s a molly in there with two platies and a guppy, Dad,” she would say before looking more closely and adding “The guppy’s name is Simon. He is a Taurus; he likes swimming”. I pay attention because I know that later there will be questions.
Anyway on this occasion we didn’t make it into the shop. We witnessed an accident outside when an Audi drove into a motorbike. As the young motorcyclist lay on the ground and the woman driving the car sat still, I noticed with a sigh that while three people started filming, nobody went to see if the young man was OK. So I did a quick inventory on my first aid skills – which amount to asking him how he is and counting his legs – and went to see if I could help.
To cut a long story short, he was fine.
He kept fretting about his bike which, being a mental health nurse, I thought was a distraction from the fact that he wasn’t putting any weight on his left leg and didn’t want to look lopsided in front of a pretty girl who had wandered over to take pictures. But I was wrong – it turned out he’d borrowed his brother’s bike without asking.
An ambulance came and I tried to wander off but it proved quite hard. People kept asking me to do stuff: the boy on the bike asked me to be a witness; the woman in the car asked me to forgive her; a Chinese couple asked me to pose for a photograph beside the crash helmet.
Anyway my point is – and I’m guessing you have lots of days like this – my time was filled not with the thing I had set out to do. I was not discussing the biographies of several neon tetra and negotiating the purchase of Gary the gourami – but rather sorting out the fire fight that is a retail car park when things go wrong. My day became a bucket into which random need was placed.
And of course that is the definition of many a nursing day. Indeed it has probably been like that for years but I can’t help but wonder if there is a fundamental difference underpinning that phenomenon these days that has something to do with the sense we make of the struggle?
It started as a night out with various nursey types a few weeks ago, people we have known for years. One of them said: “The thing is, it’s not the same activity I signed up to. It has different values, a different ethos, different language.” Everyone nodded. It became a crescendo of disaffection. Something profound has changed the consensus. We are not doing what we came here to do.
I’ve heard this sort of thing too many times for it not to be significant. Whether it be the language of health economics that dominates clinical questions so overwhelmingly and so unquestioningly, or the vacuous investment in the corporate above the moral, the expectation is that nurses and their colleagues will pledge allegiance to a letterhead rather than to the meaningful values and life that brought most of them to the profession in the first place.
Of course the modern health service will tell you to move with the times but the modern health service often talks hollow nonsense, doesn’t it? The health service relies on the motivation of its workforce – how can that be realigned to logos and business plans when it has been founded on, and embedded in, human qualities? If we lose the staff, we lose everything. I wonder if anyone with power has thought of that?
Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.