Christina Patterson: Nasty nurses? Tell me something new

I, too, was a bit naïve. I thought they would know what operation you'd had, instead of asking you why you couldn't walk

Wednesday 16 February 2011 01:00 GMT

Some people, on hearing that old people in hospital were being left lying in their own faeces, or with open wounds that no one had put a bandage on, or with a mouth that was red and raw and parched, because they couldn't reach out for the beaker of water that was on their bedside cabinet, or that they were getting very thin, because they couldn't get anywhere near the tray of food at the end of their bed, or that they were being taken out of hospital in other people's clothes, which were soaked in urine and held together with paper clips, might be a bit surprised.

John Humphrys certainly sounded surprised. When he talked about a new report, about the care of old people in hospital, on the Today programme yesterday, he seemed to think that it was strange that people who couldn't do anything for themselves, and who had probably paid a lifetime of national insurance contributions to get the care they were now getting, and who were very uncomfortable, and very ill, and often very hungry, and often very thirsty, and often very dirty, weren't being made to feel better by the people who were looking after them. He seemed to think that this was unusual. He even seemed to think it might be ageist.

I think that's unfair. I think it's perfectly normal to be lying in a hospital bed, not able to do anything very much, and in a lot of pain, and feeling very sick, and not knowing if you will ever feel better again, and to have someone who is meant to be looking after you who doesn't seem to want to look after you. I think it's perfectly normal to press your buzzer, which is the one thing you can reach, because your morphine pump doesn't seem to be working, or your oxygen pump is making a funny noise, and have no one answer it. But maybe John Humphrys, who is very busy interviewing politicians, hasn't had time to visit a hospital.

Luckily, I have. I have, in fact, found the time to have six operations in the past eight years. Before the first one, which now seems like a long time ago, I was a bit naïve. I, too, thought that if, for example, you'd just had bits of you cut out, and were finding it quite hard to move, not just because of the pain, but also because of the drains and drips and tubes and catheters that were coming out of your arms, and chest, and other parts of you that it isn't nice to mention in a column, and were also quite upset, because you'd just been diagnosed with cancer and were still in your thirties, and you didn't know if the surgeons had caught it all, or how bad it was, that the people who were meant to be looking after you would be nice. But I soon learnt that they weren't.

On the morning after my operation, for example, when I was told that if I wanted some breakfast, I would need to get it myself, and managed to push the trolleys with the drips and drains to the room with the toast and the corn flakes, only to find that the tea was in a giant pot which you'd have trouble lifting even if you hadn't just had all the lymph nodes cut out from under your arm, I realised that no one thought it was very important if I got a cup of tea or not.

It's a good idea to learn this, because then, when the tea trolley forgets to stop at your bed, and the friend who's visiting you tries to run after it to get you a cup of tea, and is told off by a nurse, who tells you that you'll get a cup of tea much, much later, you can tell your friend that you must never, ever ask for something trivial like a cup of tea from a nurse.

By the time I could teach my friend about the tea, which was a year ago, I'd had four operations, so I was beginning to learn the rules. I had, it's true, thought that the rules at this hospital might be different. I knew that the nurses at the other hospital really didn't like being nurses, and that they thought the best way they could show this was to be rude to the patients, which worked very well, but I thought that this hospital, which everyone said was very good, and where the surgeons, and receptionists, and nurses, all seemed very good, would have different rules. I thought, for example, that when you'd just had an eight-hour operation, and had lost your breast, and were worried that the chunk of flesh and blood vessels from your stomach which had been put where your breast used to be, might, as the form you'd just signed said was possible, go black and have to be chopped off, and also that you might never be able to stand upright again, and also that the cancer might have spread and you might die, the nurses might try to be just a little bit nice.

I thought that if, after someone had said that the blood vessels needed to be checked every 15 minutes, and no one came near you for two and a half hours, you pressed your buzzer, the person who finally did come to see you wouldn't be cross. I thought that if they were the person you'd been told would be looking after you, they might even know what operation you'd had, instead of asking you why you couldn't walk or what was wrong with your stomach. And I thought that if the people around you, who had all had operations and were making the kind of noise you make if you're in a lot of pain, pressed their buzzers, then the nurses, who were standing round chatting to each other, might come and help.

I soon found out that I was wrong, but I did, as I was lying there, listening to the groans of the other patients, which made the ward sometimes seem a bit like Passchendaele, and thinking that I had never, in my life, felt more alone, wonder, like John Humphrys, how you could see people you knew were in pain, and frightened, and maybe even dying, and not want to make things better for them. I wondered how you could know that there were little things you could do, like pouring them a glass of water, or not being cross when they pressed their buzzer, or even smiling, and not do them. I could see how if you had, for example, been forced to join the Lord's Resistance Army, you might end up being cruel to people, because people had been so cruel to you, but I couldn't see how that would happen if you were doing something that you had chosen to do, and were being paid for.

I told the very good hospital about my time on the ward, and because they are very good, and mean it when they say they want patient feedback, their response has been very, very good. They have appointed a new sister on that ward. They have employed more permanent staff. They have sat down with each nurse and told them how they are expected to do their job, and shown them how to do it, and drawn up "development plans" to make sure they do it, and introduced surprise visits from a "chief nurse" to make sure they do it, and got rid of people who don't. I think if that can work in that hospital, it can probably work in any hospital, but it means that people stop writing reports, and talking about reports, but start acting on the reports they've already got.

Three weeks ago, I had what I hope will be my last operation for a while. The surgeon was delightful. The anaesthetists were lovely. And the nurses weren't cruel. The nurses weren't sullen. The nurses even, and it almost made me cry, brought me tea.;

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