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Author tackles emergency in nursing recruitment

Christie Watson talks to Maggie Gruner about the harrowing and uplifting aspects of being an underpaid nurse

24 May, 2018 — By Maggie Gruner

Author Christie Watson has worked at London hospitals including the former Queen Elizabeth Hospital for children in Hackney Road, St Mary’s, Guy’s and St Thomas’s. Photo: Lottie Davies

THE author of an acclaimed new nursing memoir, who trained at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Bloomsbury, has vowed to campaign for the reinstatement of bursaries for student nurses in order to prevent a healthcare meltdown.

Christie Watson, whose moving book The Language of Kindness springs from her 20 years as a nurse, told Review of her concern at the crisis due to shortage of nurses.

“The fact that applications have fallen so much without the bursary is really worrying and something we need to sort out straight away to avoid a health disaster,” she said, pointing out that she wouldn’t have trained without the bursary and nor would the “fantastic” nurses she worked with.

In her book she describes nursing as the most undervalued of all the professions. Harrowing aspects of the job are presented powerfully. But the uplifting side, and the kindness, empathy, compassion and provision of dignity that she asserts make a good nurse, shine through.

Taking us from mental health unit to A&E, paediatric intensive care, the operating theatre, oncology, and care of the elderly, Christie portrays scenes so vividly we are there among the tubes and technology, with patients and their desperate relatives.

Two-year-old Charlotte has a high temperature, a high heart rate and a few tiny purple spots of rash.

“It doesn’t sound much. She is conscious and talking. But we understand the nature of sepsis,” writes Christie.

Sepsis can kill a child within hours, and Charlotte is much worse by the time she arrives at the paediatric intensive care unit. Her purple rash spreads and tissues in her limbs die. She can’t be moved. A doctor says amputation might save her, might not.

Christie writes: “I look at the nurse taking over from me, who will likely hold Charlotte’s leg as it is cut off on the ward.”

During the same week this fairly junior nurse has had to pull a mother off a child who died, the mother trying to give chest compressions after the team had stopped. The same nurse has taken another mother to the mortuary.

Another patient, nine-year-old Tommy, is paralysed from the neck down following a road accident. Christie provides meticulous physical care but “it is his mind that needs nursing most of all”. She listens, talks through his feelings, reads to him, tries to comfort his parents.

With a colleague she washes a dying young fire victim’s hair, trying to mask the reek of smoke from the family, though “that smell will stay with me for ever”. Weeping, she strokes the head of an abused baby with numerous fractures who has been starved, and scarred by cigarette burns.

Expect to reach for the tissues, but also to smile.

Here’s Charlotte on a return visit two years after her traumatic hospital admission, “toddling on prosthetic limbs, smiling…holding chocolates for the nurses,” her parents saying “Thank you” over and over again.

Nursing is underpaid. Christie, who, as well as Great Ormond Street has worked at London hospitals including the former Queen Elizabeth Hospital for children in Hackney Road, St Mary’s, Guy’s and St Thomas’s, writes: “I am not one of the many nurses who has taken a pay-day loan or gone to a food bank,” but at one stage she is “dangerously close”.

Nurses also suffer an emotional toll. There is “too little clinical supervision for the weight of emotion” they feel, and the effect on them of what they see or do is little explored.

Though Christie, an award-winning novelist, no longer works as a nurse, she is committed to the profession and now has a platform to pursue critical issues.

A keynote speaker at the Royal College of Nursing congress, she has also been asked to be a champion of the global Nursing Now campaign.

She said: “Unless we have big conversations on an international level about strategy, about how we increase nursing numbers and keep nurses in the profession, we are going to see devastating effects and the people who will suffer are patients.”

The book was sparked when her father was dying of cancer. Being a relative rather than a nurse brought home to her the importance of her job and kindness.

Returning to work after her dad’s death, she saw slippers just like his beneath a patient’s bed on the oncology ward. She burst into tears and the patient held her, their roles reversed.

“I realised then that patients and nurses are so linked. We are all nurses at some point and all patients at some point.”

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story. By Christie Watson. Chatto and Windus, £14.99

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