Yesterday I happened to hear an interview conducted by Anna Magnusson on BBC Radio 4's Sunday Worship. It gave me an insight to the vocation of nursing:
"One of my nieces is a newly-qualified Staff Nurse. Ellie’s 23, and works in a vast London hospital. She’s in the kind of job which gives her insight and maturity beyond her years. Every day, she looks after strangers. We sat down together one afternoon to talk about caring, and giving back what we receive. And what the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet means to her:
It’s the son of God; it is the most holy person saying, 'I don’t care if you’re homeless, I don’t care if you’re the scum of the earth, I am here to serve you.' It’s just throwing every ideal we have out the window that you have to be the most rich, you have to be clean, you have to be good at your job – as long as you are a person, that’s what makes you valuable, and I am looking past anything other than you being a human – you are a human so I am going to serve you.
As a nurse you do have to do that, you have to say, I don’t care if you’re a drug-dealer, I don’t care if you’re a criminal, I don’t care if you’re a nun – I am going to treat you exactly the same because I have a duty to serve every person that comes through this door.
Tell me a bit about feet, though – what kind of feet do you encounter in your work?
Ooh … They come in all shapes and sizes, all lengths of toenails and smelliness and grottiness. We’ve got patients who come off the streets, who are homeless. And sometimes it can be quite horrible!
But clearly you can’t allow yourself to be squeamish because that’s your job; it involves a lot of putting your hands on people, on giving intimate help?
Yeh, and I think over the years you do, you become a bit more immune to it.
I remember one of my patients, he had come off the street and he had this massive beard which he said he never used to have, and he was quite stinky, so I scrubbed him. And you could just see the dirt all falling off. And then goes, ‘Oh, I really want to have a shave!’. So I chopped off all of his beard with some scissors and then I got the shaver out. And I shaved his whole beard. And he just couldn’t thank me enough, it was great. And it was such a lovely bonding time between us, because I asked him about his life, I was able to find out what he was like when he was younger, and when he left he just couldn’t stop shaking my hand. Because it’s one small thing that makes such a big difference, and I think everyone would want, I think people would want to do that, to give a tiny bit to someone and for them to receive so much from it...."
She added another insight into the folly of our policy of squeezing more and more out of the resource which we deliberately limit financially. We can't expect the time and level of compassion we'd like, when we understaff the NHS because we underfund. Time is money - and money provides time.
"One of the main reasons I love nursing, and especially when I was a student – I was able to give more of myself to them because I wasn’t pressured by being a staff nurse; I had that little bit of extra time take the effort to make sure that it’s done in the most lovely way, to say, 'No, don’t rush this, this is someone, this is your grandma, this is your mum, take the time to make this as nice as it can be – even if it’s just 10 minutes, giving someone a little bed-bath in their hospital bed.' And then very quickly you’re getting a picture of their life. So I never view them really as strangers."
In the same programme Anna Magnusson related,
"I’ve a friend in London who used to work for a home-care service.
The allocated time for each visit was 15 minutes, and it was never enough. She couldn’t allow herself to leave someone soiled or half-dressed, so she would over-run. Then she had to rush off to the next person, always behind schedule, always distressed over what she could not do to help.
She was paid peanuts and, in the end, she couldn’t continue and care for her own family as well.
She trained as a bus driver instead, and was paid a decent wage."
We know that's true - and yet it seems that as a society we are not willing to pay the price of providing care to those in need at their point of need. And then we, led by the media, have the gall to complain at waiting times or cursory treatment. And politicians find it convenient to collude in the blame game - to deflect our attention away from the fact that they don't have the courage to face themselves and us with the truth that care costs. Care is worth paying for. The NHS is worth paying for. And that means nurses and those in the care professions deserve rewarding.