Monday 29 May 2017

Don't Wake Up by Liz Lawler

Published by Zaffre on May 25, 2017

How nursing influenced my writing

As a student nurse I had a brilliant tutor. She was ex-army and in appearance she always reminded me of a comic character, called Bessie Bunter. She had a ruthless approach in training young students. Her beliefs; actions speak louder than words, were practiced. We were asked to insert a nasogastric tube into each other. She gave us a little tip on how to make this task easier – to put the long length of tube in the fridge first, so that it became more rigid and less likely to wander around at the back of the throat. Even now as I write this I am swallowing hard to get that tube past the knot in my throat. Another lesson was on how to apply plaster of Paris. The lovely messy warmth of the plaster-embedded bandages being moulded over your arm and then left to set was an enjoyable session, until she said that she’d like us to wear them for twenty-four hours.

Nursing was a major part of my life for many years and will always be filled with the memories of those first experiences. The first time I washed a patient, I touched her as if she were made of porcelain, until she told me she wouldn’t break if I actually rubbed and not dabbed at her. The first time I lay out a body, my eyes were fixed on the dead woman’s face as I washed her and I nearly died of fright as I saw her eyebrows move. Throwing down the flannel, I ran down the ward to find the ward sister to tell her that the patient was still alive! Sternly, she marched me back to the body where I had to explain what I thought I’d seen. What in fact had happened was that as I moved the woman’s head, her hairline dropped back because the poor creature was wearing a wig, and that was the only thing that had moved! The first time I gave an injection, I had my eyes closed until this handsome rugby player asked me if I could please open them while I was giving it. The ‘first times’ will stay with me forever.

In my first ward placement, I was on night duty. After the lights turned down, the ward sister asked me to collect all the denture pots and to clean the teeth in the sluice. I was happy to this job and with a bucket I quietly collected the plastic pots. In the sluice I placed the bucket down in a very large sink and turned on the powerful taps. In the blink of an eye, the bucket filled with water and the denture pots tipped over and floated empty of their teeth. The ward sister said I had the rest of the night to find out whose teeth belonged to whom. It was easy enough to find the owner for some of the teeth as their name was inscribed on the side of the denture plate with permanent pen. For other patients it was a case of try and see if they fit. A fortnight later, I was still on this ward when during the night an elderly woman died. The first thing we were always taught to do was insert the false teeth to give the face a more natural form. The auxiliary nurse assisting me carried out the task while I prepared to wash her. I let out a gasp as I looked down at the poor lady. She looked like a human horse lying there, wearing two top sets of dentures, her mouth unable to close. To this day I will always wonder who ended up with two bottom sets of dentures.

In my first posting as a trained nurse, I was tasked with the job of taking a patient to the mortuary. It all looked straightforward. There were three tall fridge doors and behind each of these were three body trays. A specially designed lift enabled you to carry out the job. The idea was to pull out the tray and then to transfer the diseased from the ward trolley. It was all going smoothly until I pushed the body tray back into the fridge and realised only one side was inserted properly and now with the weight of the body was tipping sideways. Well there was only thing to do. Climb into the fridge and physically push the body back before the tray came crashing down onto the body beneath. Only once I’d climbed in to take the weight of the tray on my shoulder, I couldn’t move. He was too heavy. With my nursing hat crushed beneath the weight of the tray and my legs ready to buckle, the auxiliary nurse ran to fetch help. The strange thing I remember about that experience was that I was so afraid that I’d hurt the dead man if I let him fall. Despite the calamities of my student days, at the age of twenty five I became a nursing sister and was sent to Italy to assess the differences between the British and Italian healthcare. I became fluent in the use of the words: Mamma Mia.

Nursing has had a huge influence on my life and has given me back as much as I have ever given to it – in spades. To witness the fight people make to live, to witness bravery in both the young and old as they hear the worst of news and then as they try to comfort the ones they love, has inspired me beyond measure. To witness colleagues over many years performing minor miracles as they bring someone back from the dead, or salvage life from a wreck of a body so badly injured that you cannot imagine life ever being possible again. I’ve seen people carrying out great acts of kindness and I have also seen the other side of human nature – the destroyer – the life taker, the wife beater, the child molester who you can never walk away from and forget. There is no other job like nursing, no quicker access to being connected to a stranger, of having someone place their trust in you. The finest advice my tutor ever gave was to never look at a patient as just a patient, to imagine someone you love in their shoes. Nursing leaves little in life to be shocked about, but so very much to write about!

Don't Wake Up is out now.

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