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‘Nurses have to dig deep just to have the strength to carry on’

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I haven’t watched a horror film since seeing The Exorcist in 1974. I snuck into it while still underage, imagining I was thumbing my nose at the man. It absolutely terrified me. All spinning heads, satanic taunting and Mike Oldfield. I have avoided scary films ever since.

Not that I should have been surprised really. Sometimes when my mum was out babysitting, I would stay up and watch a ‘Hammer Horror’ film with my grandad and, even though I was really quite young, I tended to worry about people a bit too much to ever be able to enjoy watching them be drained of blood by a pasty-faced bloke in a cape.

“When a vampire has drained your life blood from you, you don’t tend to get better”

“Will he get better?” I would ask Grandad, a plain-speaking Glaswegian.

“Well, no. He doesn’t have any blood left,” he usually replied.

“Yes, but will he get better?”

“No. He’s a vampire now. He’ll want to drink the blood of his wife. And other members of the extended family who opted to stay in the spooky castle for the weekend.”

And, sure enough, he did drink the blood of a couple of annoying cousins – but I think (I was behind the sofa) his wife escaped and went on to marry someone like Orson Welles. Although in context, Grandad was right – when a vampire has drained your life blood from you, you don’t tend to get better.

I, along with friends, have been talking about exhaustion lately. The soul-weary, bone-tired exhaustion many nurses seem to be experiencing. We’ve talked about how it becomes visible and how deep it runs. And we have talked about how delicate a subject it is because noticing it and commenting on it can sound like a criticism. Yet not noticing it is to ignore it – and that feels disrespectful I think.

We were on a general medical ward and my friend (a former nurse), whose father we were visiting, said she had never seen such a withdrawn workforce. Heads down, no eye contact, questions received as assaults.

“Hello, can I ask, has my father drunk anything this morning?” my friend asked, knowing her dad had been forgetting to drink and the nurses had told him it was a problem.

“We’ve been very busy,” replied the nurse. Defensive, fragile, and moving away as she spoke. And that sounds like a criticism of the nurse doesn’t it?

“Nurses have to gather resources from deep within themselves just to keep going”

As nurses, you might react by thinking anything from ‘people don’t realise how busy it is’ to ‘that answer makes more problems than it solves’. You may experience it with sympathy or irritation but, for me, the point is – and, goodness knows, I banged on about this often enough after the Francis report – we are choosing to construct circumstances, skill mixes, services and work days that make brilliant nursing less achievable for nurses. This means that, over and over, weekly, yearly, nurses have to gather resources from deep within themselves just to keep going, to negate the poor investment, the lack of beds or staff, and the constant change.

Now you don’t need me to tell you things are absurdly difficult for many professionals working in healthcare right now. And you don’t really need me to point out that sometimes it shows. But I can, I think, ask a question that few people seem interested in because, I suppose, in the grand healthcare system scheme of things, it isn’t terribly important. And it is this: if you are exhausted, drained, struggling, stressed and changed by the relentlessness of the work right now, will you get better? Will you be OK? Are there people looking after you? I do hope so. And not just because we need you.

Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Stranger than Kindness.

Follow him on Twitter: @markacradcliffe.

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