Words: Lisa Sheehy
Illustrations: Anna Magnowska
It seems to be cool to claim that you were a geeky kid. I don't know why.
I really was a geek though. I remember sitting in the wooden pavilion of my local park one time. I was friendless, bracified and about eleven - just catching some air and reading a book. I read a lot of books back then. I looked up to see some graffiti. It was a blob of a person with the slogan ‘Sheehy the walking, talking dictionary.'
I can laugh about it now but at the time it was really awful. Maybe one day I will write some amazing novel and get invited to recount this story to geeky school children at a special assembly. We will all cry and hug each other at the end like in American films.
Anyway I digress.
Shortly after the graffitti incident I broke my foot doing a cartwheel. Something clicked in my head as I got my leg plastered - I wanted to look after people!
My injury also made me briefly more popular as people wanted to try out my crutches (weird I know - we lived in rural Scotland and there was very little to do).
So I became a nurse.
I studied at Glasgow Caledonian University. It used to be a polytechnic and some people are snobby about that but who cares? I didn't. I got through it. Three years of a baked beans, cider and white bread diet, falling in love with slim and softly spoken Jim from Falkirk, getting dumped, graduating, moving to London.
I remember talking to my sister around this time.
At nineteen she didn’t have a clue about what she wanted to be when she grew up. I felt really smug and superior.
I had a vocation and was ambitious as hell. I was going to become a ‘clinical nurse specialist’ (CNS) as quickly as possible. No bedbaths, no uniform. I would get paid loads of money to swish around in high heeled shoes while looking glamorous.
I got a postgraduate qualification in cancer nursing the year after, then a masters in palliative care (a speciality involving the physical and psychosocial care of people living with life limiting illnesses) a few years after that.
Then I met this guy at a music festival. He was older and smiley with red hair and a posh accent. Not my type at all. He went on to do a long and imaginative monologue about how he had kidnapped Cliff Richards and imprisoned him in his tent. I’m not usually a fan of this sort of thing but there was an irresistible twinkle about him and after bonding over a mutual love of karaoke and smoothies we got married.
People are always banging on about how hard nurses work and it's true. If you are reading this you probably know a nurse, are a nurse or perhaps even want to be a nurse.
So you might know what it's like: the bed baths, the buzzers, the turns, the toileting. Undressing and showering a fully grown person who is paralysed is one of the toughest tasks - a proper work out! Repeat for twelve hours without a break for three or four days.
But it's not all negative - of course not.
Helping people is addictive. The intimacy, the daily acknowledgement of mortality, affecting demonstrable positive change to people's lives every day.
No nocturnal guilt over arms selling or about issuing traffic fines to crying single mums.
There are other quirks. I have lost count of the number of misty eyed strangers at dinner parties who have called me an ‘angel’.
I think most of them are touched that people still do jobs that are largely motivated by compassion and empathy. Some have had personal experience of palliative care with a loved one and feel a personal gratitude to you. Often they just simply cannot fathom how you humanly manage to do the job every day.
But somehow I did and after four years I achieved my ambition. I was a CNS.
It wasn’t all swishing and I wasn't as filthy rich as I had hoped. Carrying the needs of fiftyplus patients and their families in your head is tough. A constant rush of difficult phone calls, paperwork and cycling madly in high heels around London.
Our job was to give specialist advice around managing complex symptoms such as pain, coordinating hospital and community services and to provide psychological support for patients and their loved ones. If that sounds like a tall order its because it is. The GPs relied on us to ask people where they wanted to die and to discuss having ‘Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation’ (DNACPR) orders in their homes. Sometimes that was the main reason we were asked to see patients. Approaching this topic with a stranger can be challenging. You can't say ‘‘Hello Mr Smith - How are things? Yes I would love a coffee thank you - milk and one sugar please. Oh and where would you like to die?’
Death is the ultimate elephant in the room with the tiptoeing sometimes continuing right up until the bitter end. You need endless patience, compassion, nerves of steel and the diplomatic skills of Kofi Annan.
I became very close to my colleagues Anna and Karen who were also CNS's within the same small community palliative care team covering a large and complex borough of London.
Just coasting on the edge of coping we got through ten hour day after ten hour day with a large dose of gallows humour and more swearing than is becoming. The pressure did not stop at 5pm as we often had to carry a bleep overnight and at weekends but we propped each other up somehow.
I have always been a hippy and after years of indecision, started studying naturopathy at the weekends. It was the best of penny dropping times mentally but gruelling to the extreme. I spent hours learning about the far reaching effects of stress on the adrenals while simultaneously flogging my own with near constant work and study. The irony wasn’t lost on me but I kept giving myself the same pep talk; 'Hold out for maternity pay. You are not getting any younger love. After 14 years of this, it’s the least you deserve!'
My biggest challenge was to organise a local festival on top of everything else.
I managed it somehow. I really don’t know how, but it definitely happened - there are photographs and everything!
I was in work the following day - not even one more day off to recover.
The next day is one that will stay with me forever. It was a hot and cloudless day in July.
Karen was late and she hadn’t read our WhatsApp messages for a couple of days. We reflected on how weird this was and tried to call her. Her phone kept going to voicemail and something didn't feel right.
We carried on trying to contact Karen as our boss took an urgent call outside. She returned pale and shaking - called everyone to the table.
Karen had been found dead in her bed.
It was as awful as you might imagine. She was just 42. It was only once she was gone that I fully understood how much she meant to me. Her Geordie accent, love of wine and Greggs pasties (without ever putting an ounce of weight on), the smell of Coco Chanel that wafted behind her. Her wry smile and wicked sense of humour had made a tough job bearable and now I would never see her again.
You would imagine that people working in palliative care would know what to do and say in this kind of situation but sudden death challenges everyone.
After a week off we returned back to work
Some of her patients had not been told that she had died - so we had to.
It was understandably very difficult. Roles uncomfortably reversed.
Patients comforting nurses.
Walking past her desk every day was incredibly sad - a doll for her niece that she never got to send, a half empty perfume bottle, textbooks for the prescribing course that she didn’t finish.
She was never replaced. Obviously nobody could replace her but we badly needed immediate cover. Unbelievably we couldn't get it. The NHS has been so thoroughly flogged that there is no flex in the system. No senior nurses to fill in. We were grieving but had to work even harder than before. My pep talk stopped working. Throwing caution to the wind and my ovaries I took three months unpaid leave and resigned after the first week.
I joined my husband on an acting tour. Playing his mother in a show for rich kids in international schools from Jordan to Indonesia was the best kind of Freudian medicine. I went from worrying about stocking end of life drugs to worrying about learning lines, projecting my voice and the best way to sleep in an airport (inflate one of those blow up flotation aids for swimming, use earplugs, cover yourself with all your clothes and pray).
I have been back in London for six months and have not returned to nursing. I don't think I can.
Some days It feels like eating at an all you can at a buffet, reaching for one more fondant fancy but stopping just in time to avoid vomit on your shoes.
Other times, it's more like that relationship when I woke up, looked over and hated his stupid moustache, his mother, how he pronounced the word ‘tooth’ and was barely able to look at him never mind sleep with him.
Am I ‘burnt out’, doctor? or is it ‘compassion fatigue’? We know these phrases well because being pushed to the limit and beyond is common. Everyone is in the same boat without a paddle.
I do feel guilty though. That 89% plunge in EU nurses coming to the UK after Brexit, The 23% drop in nursing degree applicants after bursaries were scrapped.
The paddleless boat is getting thrashed by six foot waves and we keep finding holes in the middle.
Nowadays I am a jack of many trades. Nutritionist, essential oil purveyor, fundraiser, blogger, and researcher.
I’m much poorer but also happier.
But looking back there were many highlights.
I think the conversations were the best bits. From to what to do with 150 boxes of Omeprazole after somebody dies (take them to the pharmacy) through to angels, chakras, reincarnation and how to come back as a ghost (sorry, I’ve no idea about that one).
Nursing has given me some of my best friendships, enviable multitasking skills and a very dark sense of humour.
Its taught me in a very real way that life is finite and not to waste time being unhappy. Staying in a job you hate just for maternity pay or even worse for a pension is crazy - the very definition of masochism.
This sentiment made me flirt with ending this article by telling all my nursey readers to quit like in that scene from the film ‘Network’.
You know the one - everybody opens their windows and shouts ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’ If you haven't seen it then you need to- it's really good.
Of course the problem with an impassioned mass exodus it that it would be suicidal - the ultimate act of self-sabotage. Everybody needs nurses.
I’m a naturopath with a strong belief in alternative medicine but if somebody runs me over no faffing with crystals or lavender - just call me an ambulance right away.
So this makes me wish that I had something clever to say about how to stop 33,000 nurses a year from quitting (50% under the age of 40)
I know the main offenders - Brexit, stopping nurses bursaries, Jeremy Hunt etc but besides campaigning, petitioning and voting in a new government what can we do to slow down the rush to leave or to compel me and the other 32, 999 nurses to return?
Is that even possible?
I’m not sure but if you have ideas - please share. I would love to hear your views in the comments
Dedicated to Karen, with love from Lisa and Anna.