This week I worked two 12.5 hour shifts, back-to-back. For those who haven’t done this, it’s gruelling: I took a single, one-hour break per shift to eat and drink, rest, and re-group, as did my colleagues, some of who work longer hours than I do. As the day progressed, my patients saw an increasingly tired nurse. I was aware my words were becoming less pronounced, my talking was faster, and I was clumsier. I don’t know whether my patients noticed, I think some of them must have; one patient had to return later in my shift from an earlier visit and said “Are you still here?!” Such is the working life of a nurse.
At various points in the day I felt happy, sad, demoralised and pleased. I felt happy because I love my job, I feel privileged to be there for the best and the worst parts of life and to be able to help my patients through that journey; feeling occasionally sad is an inevitable part of nursing – we see different aspects of sadness because we see so much of it and we are sometimes defeated by it; I felt demoralised because with just a few changes my patients could have had more of my time and therefore a better and easier experience; and pleased because I know I made my best efforts to put my patients first. But never content because nursing is not a ‘content’ type of job!
And as the tiredness progressively hit me as the shift progressed, like all nurses, my colleagues were vital. As colleagues, we laugh together, cry together, and generally sag together but we always understand why we’ve come to work that day, and this group direction gives us a connection that even the hardest shift can’t break. In fact, the harder the shift, the closer we grow.
At the start of my shift, one of my colleagues told me how her good friend has become ill for the second time, and I hugged her. Invested in my hug was sorrow for her sadness, for her friend’s battle that is only just beginning, and sorrow for my friend’s knowledge – she has a unique insight into the fight her friend has just begun. This means she will worry about the things that she knows can go wrong, how the illness can win and what her friend can lose. This insight creates a bond between us and it is strengthened by the things we have witnessed together during our patients’ journeys, creating from strong empathy and understanding between us. This means that we can cut friendship corners: we can read each other, know our colleagues’ mood, quickly recognising when they are hurt, anxious or happy. These are unique relationships and I treasure them.
The NHS abounds with these relationships. We are one family – we can’t walk down the corridor without smiling or acknowledging a colleague, we all know someone because they usually work with us. There is a wealth of talent and expertise within the walls of a hospital and patient welfare is at its core – it is this focus that binds us. The NHS is home to all this effort, concern and care. On reflection, it is astonishing that, as healthcare practitioners, we never need to talk about it – we all work alongside each other, caring for our patients and we never have to voice our focus or our concerns, the patient is automatically placed at the centre of all we do. We simply come together and each help the patient, each contributing our own effort within our own areas of expertise, without ever having to give this fact recognition. All our skill and effort is consistently focused on the patient. Such is the NHS. It has evolved into a strong unit with one focus: to help the patient in whatever way we can. This is our strength. The NHS has a backbone of care, compassion and courage. I hope it cannot be broken.