She is large, but in a way that doesn’t seem to bother her. She is difficult to age – anywhere between 30 and 50. She has dark skin and masses of dark frizzy hair which she struggles to keep under her nurse’s cap. She volunteers her name, but it is long and ethnic and I can’t remember it. I remember her, though.
I’m worried – I might almost say scared – by the procedure I have to undergo, but her welcome is amazingly friendly and professional, and completely puts me at ease.
People complain about the health service, but my experience of it is positive. The appointment has not been cancelled, it proceeds as planned, and the staff I encounter come across as extremely competent and caring.
I have lots of time to observe them, and particularly this one nurse. She is clearly under pressure and very busy. Various people come up to her and make requests or comments. She quietly takes notes in a hardback book. She acknowledges everything with a calm little nod and a smile. Several times she laughs and jokes with a colleague or patient, always it seems she has a kind word to say, a gesture of reassurance. When it is time to usher an older lady through to the theatre, she puts an arm around her, clasps her hand, tells her not to worry and that everything will be okay. She doesn’t have to do this, but she does it naturally, because it is the right thing to do, and because she really cares.
When she calls me to a private room to run through my questionnaire and ask me to sign a form, she puts a hand on my arm, hands me a tissue when I experience a moment of distress, smiles at me as if she knows me, and not like I am one of a long procession of anxious women she encounters every day.
She moves through the waiting room several times, answering people’s questions, helping them with their possessions, which have to be put in plastic crates which get sealed up and follow them (hopefully without getting mixed up) through to when their operations are over and they wake up in a recovery room.
One lady is panicking about the location of her purse – the nurse competently locates it.
Another young girl can’t stop crying – the nurse offers solace, teams her up with another patient who seems more composed and is confident enough to spare a little companionship and reassurance. Ten minutes later the girl and the other patient are laughing. The nurse looks over at them, pleased.
The porters arrive to move someone and there is a moment of confusion about who is next on the list. The nurse checks her paperwork, makes a phone call, resolves the situation to everyone’s satisfaction.
I start to feel rather ashamed that my own job doesn’t have this sort of social impact, doesn’t require the same degree of direct responsibility towards other people. I imagine myself trying to do what she does, but though parts of her role appeal to me, others definitely don’t. I don’t think I would be strong enough. I don’t think I could remain calm enough – not like she does when someone starts complaining to her about the long wait.
“I’m sorry, it’s just the only practical way it can be done,” she explains to the irate patient. Everyone is asked to come at the same time and be made ready – that way the consultants and surgeons can better control their time, be able to prioritise and make changes to the order in which they see people, according to need, or what urgent things might come up during the day.
“So I might sit here all day but not get seen?” the irate lady gets more irate.
“That’s most unlikely,” the nurse says, smiling in the face of annoyance. “I’m sure you’ll be sent for soon – I’ll go and check on the list as soon as I get a minute.”
I try not to be a nuisance. I sit quietly and read a paper. I chat periodically to other patients – it’s interesting, especially when their afflictions are similar to mine.
It’s the sort of place one might make a new friend.
On the other hand, one might never see any of these people again.
The day wears on, and my admiration for this nurse, and her colleagues, grows. There is a sort of subtle sense of humour exhibited by the participants of this daily drama.
“Who’s next for a ride?” says a cheeky young porter, arriving with a wheelchair.
“So what’s happened to Mrs Moseley’s records?” asks a whistling mail man. “Cat got them? Accidentally tossed in the shredder? Oh no, here they are, right where they were supposed to be last time I came round!”
“Who wants a tea from upstairs?” It’s the middle-aged receptionist – obviously a bit of a character, as evidenced by the streak of pink in her hair and the strange comical dragon perched on the edge of her PC screen. “Only no special requests, I’m too old to remember a long order. Tea or no tea, that’s your option – I’ll bring some sugar for those who aren’t sweet enough already.”
I don’t know how they do it, stay cheerful and friendly under pressure and in such a – in my opinion – generally unpleasant environment.
But just as I am eventually called and transported through mysterious corridors on a rather forbidding trolley, I witness something which changes my perspective on the day and depresses me, rather.
My friendly, competent ethnic nurse, who I have watched being kind to people all day, is standing by an open door, talking in a loud whisper into her mobile phone.
I don’t catch much of her conversation, but her tone is very different, very harsh, and I definitely hear a rude word or two.
“ – same as always, driving me effing mad, don’t know how the hell I can bloody stand it –”
Maybe she’s not even talking about her job, maybe it’s something or someone in her personal life she can’t stand. But somehow, her character has been tainted in my eyes. She is no longer unquestionably kind and caring – the spectre has been raised that it is all an act, that she hates her patients, hates every minute of her job, and doesn’t care one little bit how I’m feeling and how my operation goes.
Can I really have expected her to be so perfect? Surely she is weak and troubled and – flawed – like the rest of us. I don’t hold it against her.
But as they put me under, I cry at how that one glimpse into someone’s private world has shattered my delusions of well-being.