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The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson – review - Articles - Nurses Arena Forum

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The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson – review by katty : April 29, 2018, 12:56:59 PM
Nurse and author Christie Watson is working on the paediatric intensive care unit. She is looking after a teenage boy with muscular dystrophy who is on a life-support machine that is helping him to breathe. Watson tells us that this young man is at the end of his life and it is her duty to keep him comfortable. The boy and the family have decided that there should be no more medical interventions if the breathing tube becomes dislodged.

Watson must make sure that the tube is well protected – the boy is reliant on it. Despite this, she must also perform routine nursing tasks. She needs to change the tapes holding the tube in place. On this particular occasion, she performs the task but quickly realises she has cut through the breathing tube itself, rather than the tapes. There is a whooshing of air leaking, the boy’s eyes flicker; blinking frantically, he struggles to breathe and suddenly doctors and nurses fill the room. Chaos.

There are many such vignettes in Christie Watson’s powerful memoir, The Language of Kindness, which describes the normal ups and downs of a day in the life of a nurse in the NHS. I too am a nurse. This morning, I woke at 5:30 for my third 12-hour shift in a row. I have been looking after a man with a brain injury who is also reliant on a breathing tube to keep him alive so I am all too aware of the “simple but important” tasks that fill our days. The boy with the breathing tube in Watson’s book survives

This is not a book solely for nurses, despite its simple dedication: “For nurses”. It is for anyone wanting to understand and learn more about what happens behind the doors of the hospital where spaces are occupied by porters rushing to deliver blood, by held hands and stroked hair, by nurses with their arm around a relative. It describes what it is to feel the fabric of life beneath your fingers. Watson details “the horror and beauty of life” through vivid scenes of sickness; a baby born with her spine pushed outside her body; a child with a swollen brain; a child so burnt in a house fire that she now lies dying in her hospital bed.

There is happiness too. A child who has had a life-saving organ transplant sits up in bed while Watson helps her write a letter to the mother of the boy who died in a car crash and donated his heart to her. “Did your son like strawberry ice cream?” the little girl writes. On another shift, Watson recalls “the faces of half-a-dozen children”, in wheelchairs, clutching drip-stands, watching and laughing as she herself is thrown into a bath full of mushroom soup on her last day as a nurse on Pumpkin ward.

The Language of Kindness is part of the swell of medical memoirs. But this one is different – it is from the perspective of a nurse. Doctors complete tasks of elysian quality for patients; they inform, diagnose, prescribe, operate, treat and heal. But it is the nurses who, despite racking up thousands of steps on their pedometers, are a static constant for the person lying in extremis in the hospital bed.

Through Watson, we are taken on an absorbing, all-seeing tour through the doors of the hospital, to the corridors pulsating with wired-up patients on hospital trolleys, to the blood-spattered labour wards. Up in the lift we go – there is “a family filing out on floor six for neurology”, while “a doctor carrying a clipboard leaves at floor seven”. Up we go, again, to the medical ward, getting a cross-section of both the patients’ experiences and those of the staff.

Watson worked predominantly as a children’s nurse and wrote two novels, the first of which, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, won the Costa first novel award, while still practising. Her move to memoir is unsurprising since the nursing profession is reflective by nature. We are often encouraged by the Nursing & Midwifery Council to “look back” and learn from our experiences of care-giving in order to become better practitioners. The stories we encounter on the wards stay in our memory long after the patient has gone. One shift during my own nurse training, an elderly patient described to me a love she had experienced like no other – 65 years of marriage to her husband. The conversations I had with that woman, six years ago, were so formative that I titled my debut collection of poetry after something she said to me. She told me that once she had broken her wrist and had lain in the garden for hours waiting for her husband to rescue her. He was hard of hearing and hadn’t heard her calls. She laughed as she recalled the ordeal. In the end, she resigned herself to a summer’s evening spent beneath her rose bush, remembering all the memories she and her husband had shared together over the years. “Underneath the roses where I remembered everything,” she said, just before she died. It’s a memory and a person I will never forget.

Watson also turns her attention to the state of the NHS, shedding light on the suffering caused by underfunding. We have all heard the pleas to save our NHS, but they are made all the more persuasive when detailed among Watson’s anthology of real human stories. She quotes the high costs of current spending (“£820m on keeping older patients in hospital when they no longer need acute treatment”), while cuts in other areas – mental health, for example – mean patients are failed. “Under this government there are 5,000 fewer mental health nurses,” she writes.

I too am passionate about our NHS, fiercely protective of the staff working within it and of the patients we look after who deserve the best care we can give them. But chronic underfunding is crippling the healthcare system. There are fewer nurses joining and staying in the profession. There are not enough hospital beds and not enough money directed towards primary care. Watson sees the worst of it, as all frontline nurses do. Hospital wards are “working above capacity” and “breaching guidelines”.

The Language of Kindness is an honest entreaty. It is a plea to the public to continue supporting our NHS, to the government to provide the resources it so desperately deserves. It is also a portrait of nurses, depicting both their colourful collegiality and the muted tones of long night shifts spent tending to a patient for hours. In Watson’s honest memoir, we are reminded that we are all made from the same fibres and are all in this together, exploring the human condition and learning the language of kindness.

Molly Case is a nurse and was the first writer in residence for the Royal College of Nursing. Her book, Your Heart and Mine, will be published by Viking Penguin in spring 2019

Source : Guardian Newspaper

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