My 12 hour shift, plus extended handover time, is over. Time for the real work to begin. Today’s was my 9th stint in a row. I’m exhausted and underperforming. Still, good enough and no one died. That’s a quote from a nursing officer who became my mentor and role-model many years ago.
I’m trying not to crash into passing people and trolleys as the hospital’s main corridor fills with ancillary staff all ferrying food and supplies in the morning turmoil. My mind is pathetically slow and I almost take a wrong turn. Two food trolleys collide, jolting me from my stupor. Back on track, I have something critically important to do. When experience and instinct call, we answer. My heels click like I mean business but I’m chewing a knuckle and really not sure how to handle what comes next.
It’s a young lady named Trish. She’s extraordinary. A third-year student; this young woman is likely to be one who gains a reputation among charge nurses, the sort of nurse we almost trade between ourselves and desperately deter from leaving.
Always caring, confident, positive and in control: they don’t come better than this. Only she won’t make it to finals at this rate.
Always in control… No one is. There’s something badly wrong here. Her social armour is so thick, so tight, not a hint of weakness shows.
She needs me and it has to be now – the situation became critical so fast. I sent her off early, saying she needed peace and quiet to finish her notes. She has instructions to use my office and make coffee at precisely 07:50.
I’m late by 3 minutes and see no coffee has even been started. There’s a note on my desk – Trish has gone back to accommodation.
That means things may be worse than I thought. No, no chance of dithering, no time.
It’s not considered good etiquette to go into junior nurses’ accommodation; it can be seen as invasion.
This is the old part of the complex and I have to dodge a leaking gutter and duck under ivy to reach the main door. Disturbed snow splats on wet stones. I’ve slept in this unit often enough, temporary beds for those who live far away, are on long stretches or trapped by weather – that sort of thing.
I do hope she’s here and not headed out. Now I’m biting my lip as well.
There’s no one around in the main corridor. Her scrawled name card is still in its slot: Room 22.
Tapping on the door, I go to speak but find myself mumbling. I don’t think she got my name clearly but I can hear someone moving, a drawer closed quickly, something like a bag being zipped.
“Hang on,” comes her monotone voice. The door opens and Trish goes from pale and tired to grey and fearful. “Oh…” she gasps and steps one pace back. Of course, I had no time earlier so she doesn’t know if this is a disciplinary event or what.
No matter: I’ve rehearsed. I’ve been rescued in this way at least three times during my first year after qualifying. You only hear a couple of sentences before the brain panics into oblivion. Leaning on the door frame and smiling, I try to look relaxed. “You’ve been fabulous these last nights. I just wanted to thank you and see how you feel about it all.”
Give her a few moments to realise this is warm encouraging support and not some ghastly nightmare beginning.
“Oh…” she says again. Looking round she adds, “There’s no chair…” Some of the colour has returned to her face.
“Do you mind if I sit on the bed?”
“No … no. Go ahead.” She sits, turns to me, hands clenched and legs twisted around each other.
I ask, “How’re you doing?”
“I … I’m OK.” Trish studies my face. “Really. Is there a problem?” She looks away from my eyes.
This is too formal and she’s still not sure what it’s about. “Problem! Shit, we’ve been drowning in them. I’m left a bit ragged. How’re you?”
Trish doesn’t speak. At least she’s not defensive, just giving me room to make things more clear. I do my best, “Three attacks on staff – you were great, incidentally – one suicide attempt, God knows how many admissions, three severe acutes and … and then there was Tommy.” She stiffens. I give her a moment and go on, “All in a few nights. Like I said, you were remarkable, cool and professional.”
She stays silent, looking at the hands clenched in her lap. The knuckles blanch and her shoulders shake. Looking up, tears splash down her face.
Professional etiquette out of the window, I pull her into a hug. She curls into me and lets out a wail which stops my heart. I don’t say anything, just give her time. My shoulder is wet, tears creeping through the fabric. I wonder why we let teenagers into our hell and expect them to cope. Well, some don’t. Trish will, I hope. We need this combination of head and heart. She just needs to protect herself a little more.
Pulling back she wipes tears and snot onto her arm while I reach past and pull tissues from the bedside table.
In between sniffs and blowing her nose she starts to speak several times. Grabbing more tissues Trish goes to wipe my uniform. “It’s fine,” I say, “let me take those. I’ll do it.”
“Don’t be. I’ve done it to plenty of people. It goes with…”
Trish moans, “It’s not fair!”
“No, no it’s not. But people like you stop it being worse for them.”
She looks at me. “Really? What did I do that made life better for Tommy?”
“You care and you do it well. Imagine how he’d have been treated by someone untrained and uncaring.”
Trish sobs. “I knew him when he was admitted from school. It was a minor episode, a bit of paranoia and disordered thought. It was put down to exam and sports pressures combined. When I met him again six months later he’d lost interest in almost everything, shuffled instead of walked…” I go to speak in the silence but she begins again, “Now he just stares at a TV screen because it deters people from talking to him. He can’t even interact.”
I can’t help sighing. “Though it’s extremely rare for it to happen so fast, that doesn’t make it easier to cope with. A young life… It’s tragic.”
“Is that it?” she hisses violently. “Is that some scheme of God? Take a happy child, strip away a whole personality and turn him into … into … he’s a … a…”
She’s trying not to use words like vegetable or zombie, except there isn’t an alternative. Moaning again, Trish clutches my hands and pulls at me. Confident that a hug is still on offer, she takes it: her arms like bars of steel.
I’m out of words. If any god hears Trish’s wails of tortured innocence, let them be deafened. Time to change the subject. “My partner is going to pick me up. We have a car that can get through all this snow. We’ll take you to the nearest station or, if needs be, we have a spare room. I’m going back to square it with…”
Trish grips my wrists so tight. “No! I still have one more night shift. I need to go back. I need to see…”
“Stop! I’m urging you to drop the next shift. You’ve had more than enough, done more than enough, spent too much of yourself. You have a serious lesson to learn. Learn it gently, not the tragic way. Walk away before you break. Let other people take over from you. Trust them. Get that? Trust them. Oh, and trust me. We’ve all faced the void which crushes your soul and most who survived were rescued just like this.”
©Gary Bonn, 2019