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Celebrating the NHS at 70: What Nursing Means to Me by Christie Watson

Posted on 1st June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

'Nursing, I believe, is a faith. Nursing is a faith in humanity.' 

An NHS nurse for twenty years, Christie Watson is the author of The Language of Kindness, a moving and astonishing account of life in the nursing profession. On the seventieth anniversary of the NHS, Watson explores what nursing means to her and why it matters now more than ever.

I didn’t always want to be a nurse. I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while because I imagined wearing a swimsuit and flip-flops, swimming with dolphins, and living somewhere like California or maybe Barbados. These were the things that went through my head. I went through as many career ideas as you can possibly imagine: lawyer, singer, scientist, jazz trumpeter, astronomer, farmer. I went to agricultural college for two weeks, actually. I even had my exasperated parents buy me some specialist farming equipment because I said this was it, I would be a farmer. I romanticised farming, I imagined sitting in the field in the late summer sunshine eating cheese and pickle sandwiches – farming was quite different from that. 

I had no idea what to do. I volunteered when I was sixteen as a way to have some time to think, and nursing really didn’t enter my brain because again – then as now – it wasn’t really portrayed in the media, it was completely under-represented. But for the first time, when I was working with adults who had physical and learning disabilities, I was around nurses, and I was astonished by what they were doing. They suggested that I might consider nursing as a career and at that time they offered a bursary, without which I wouldn’t be standing here. I thought why not, I’ll give it a go, maybe I’ll be suited to this, it’s a very varied career, I’ll never be bored and maybe I have the stomach for it. But when I told my family my dad laughed out loud. He couldn’t imagine me dedicated to caring for others, and when I started, during the first week, I had an occupational health blood test. I saw my my own blood and I fainted. The phlebotomist said ‘I think you should rethink this career choice’ but I’m really glad I didn’t.

I wasn’t a born nurse; both tragedy and joy built me as a nurse, though I didn’t know it back then. I loved the job straight away. I loved the speed of it, the structure. I loved being around older nurses who had seen everything and then some. I loved the idea of listening to patients, working out the puzzle of their lives and understanding that hospitalisation and illness is just one small piece of a patient’s jigsaw puzzle. I loved the fact that nursing was so varied; I worked for many years in pediatric intensive care and then I went on to be a resuscitation nurse. I didn’t really think too much about the philosophy of nursing though, it was just something I did. I didn’t think about the thing that prompted me to go to the library, or that prompted Florence Nightingale to try to get into language what nursing was, what it meant, until I was on the other side of the fence.

Then, six years ago, my dad was dying from lung cancer. Too quickly, too young – he was only sixty-three. I found myself a relative not a nurse.When all had failed, when my dad’s chemotherapy and his palliative radiotherapy had stopped working, when his team of doctors left the room along with any hope that we had that my dad might survive, it was his nurse Cheryl by his bedside who offered my dad and our whole family something else. Something that is the most important thing. She gave him dignity. What a gift. Peace and love. I watched Cheryl like a hawk, how in the smallest of actions she made the biggest difference to all of us. She had advanced technical skills, she was a nurse prescriber, and it was those skills balanced with her experience that allowed her to close the curtains just at the right time so that my dad could bear the light. It was her experience that allowed her to judge his pain, their relationship, how she knew him so well, how she built that piece of a jigsaw puzzle of his whole life. 

I remember standing outside the bedroom because she had ushered me out. She treated me as a daughter not as a nurse, which is exactly right. She ushered me out and I heard my dad shuffling with the sheets and then I heard him shout: ‘Jump in Cheryl!’ and I heard her laugh shriek with laughter: ‘Cheeky beggar,’ she said. Their relationship was something to witness. She helped my dad be my dad until the very end. He died with dignity, with humour and with peace thanks to excellent nursing care. A death that every single one of us deserves. 

Nurses give, and will always give, and have always given so much of themselves indiscriminately to strangers whether they’re a man like my dad dying from cancer at home, or a child with learning disabilities in hospital who suffered in a fire, or even the president of America. Nurses have always done so and will always do so. What an astonishing thing that nurses do that. What an astonishing job, I suddenly realised. Where are the nurses’ voices talking about that? Why are we hearing about nursing from the outside in, not from the inside out?

We’re living in a time of isolationism, division and even hate. Nursing cannot cure us. But here’s the thing, nursing doesn’t seek to cure. Nursing saves us. Sympathy, compassion and empathy should be revered and elevated, and professionalism and the technical skills of nursing should be respected. Nursing, I believe, is a faith. Nursing is a faith in humanity. Tolerance and respect for every single human being regardless. Nursing reminds us of the only things that will matter to all of us in the end. Nursing reminds us that even when we are most frail, vulnerable and alone, we are not alone at all. I cannot think of a more important job. 

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