On Wednesday 30 May 2007 I was admitted to intensive care with double pneumonia. I had no resistance, had picked up an infection and it was touch and go whether I would pull through. One of the most intimate and emotional moments I experienced while I was there occurred on the Thursday morning following my admission. It was 8.30 in the morning on 31 May 2007. I was woken up by the door of my room bursting open.
‘I leave the department for just one day and you’re rushed into intensive care with a life-threatening infection! Kindly don’t do it again, will you?’ Blustering with emotion, my dear nurse Derk comes storming in and gives me a hug. Lots of genuinely heartfelt tears. Derk was always there. To laugh with and cry with. He could also tell some really good tales. But he knew how to listen too, when I needed to talk. And he was there for me. Derk was also good at asking simple, straightforward questions, such as: ‘You’re always so cheerful when I come in, but doesn’t that bloody disease sometimes get you down?’ Then I’d give him my silent answer. Of course I was at the end of my tether, but that was OK too.
Nurses spend a lot of time with their patients. A lot more time than doctors do. You might see a doctor for perhaps just 15 minutes a day. Sometimes less. But nurses are there all the time. For a chat. To provide you with care and treatment. I can’t begin to tell you what they’ve done for me. And what they continue to do, day in, day out. Nurses often see the best of their patients, but they also go through the most emotional times with us. Sometimes I’ve quite literally been in the shit – lying there in my bedpan – and they’ve gathered me up. Got me clean again and given me a few affectionate words of encouragement. What’s more, they didn’t just gather me up. They also put me back on the right track emotionally. Their dedication and commitment are incredible.
Nurses are a vital part of the treatment that’s given to patients. We often regard cancer as a disease that has to be got out of the body and that’s all there is to it. But we also need to be aware that patients are expending a huge amount of effort to beat the illness. They have to give everything they’ve got to stand up to the heavy burden of treatment and all the emotional trauma that goes with being sick and possibly even facing death. Not to mention coping with pain. Carrying on even when they don’t feel they’ve got anything more to give. And through all that, the nurse is always there to listen. To help. To offer a word of encouragement. And to put you back on your feet. The mental resilience of these supermen and women truly amazes me. Living and working in the midst of all this emotion inevitably takes its toll. And that’s something which too few people appreciate.
When the relationship between the patient and nurse is an essential one (in the same way as the relationship between the patient and doctor is essential), it has to remain intact. In other words, patients must be linked to their nurses. They must always have the same nurse or handful of nurses administering to them rather than legions of nurses who are on a constantly changing rota. Nurses and patients need to get to know each other well. They shouldn’t just know your name but must above all know what you consider to be important. What motivates and moves you. All this requires an investment that takes time.
Last weekend I was talking to someone who works on a cruise ship. Part of his job is to study and get to know all his customers: their preferences, their habits, what they drink, what they’re called, who their partners are and so on. Know your customer. Know your patient. The latter is even more important, of course. And there shouldn’t be any complaints about not having enough time. Getting to know the patient is part of the nurse’s job. And that’s something you simply can’t skimp on. Don’t just look for a solution – genuinely find it. The patient helps the nurse because the nurse helps the patient.
Patients first and patients make the difference.