Christie Watson spent twenty years as a nurse, and in this intimate, poignant, and remarkably powerful book, she opens the doors of the hospital and shares its secrets. She takes us by her side down hospital corridors to visit the wards and meet her most unforgettable patients.
In the neonatal unit, premature babies fight for their lives, hovering at the very edge of survival, like tiny Emmanuel, wrapped up in a sandwich bag. On the cancer wards, the nurses administer chemotherapy and, long after the medicine stops working, something more important–which Watson learns to recognize when her own father is dying of cancer. In the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the nurses wash the hair of a little girl to remove the smell of smoke from the house fire. And the stories of the geriatric ward–Gladys and older patients like her–show the plight of the most vulnerable members of our society.
I’m not sure I can be completely fair reviewing this book – a section early on made me mad and ended up tainting it for me. I’ll get to that in a minute.
But first, let me say that this is a well-written account of being a nurse in England. Watson is drawn to some of the most emotional parts of the hospital – mental care, emergency, palliative care, neonatal intensive care – so expect heart-wrenching, as well as heart-warming, stories. We watch Watson grow from a nursing student that’s duped by psych patients to a knowledgeable practitioner of one of the most noble arts.
I learn then that nursing is not so much about tasks, but about how in every detail a nurse can provide comfort to a patient and a family. It is a privilege to witness people at the frailest, most significant and most extreme moments of life, and to have the capacity to love complete strangers.
She talks how hard the work is – not only long hours and lifting heavy patients, but also the emotional toll. I think most understand nursing isn’t easy, but I’m not sure we all appreciate how punishing it can be.
Compassion fatigue is common when caring for people who have suffered trauma. The nurse repeatedly swallows a fragment of the trauma—like a nurse who is looking after an infectious patient, putting herself at risk of infection. Caring for negative emotions puts her at risk of feeling them, too. And taking in even a small part of tragedy and grief, and loneliness and sadness, on a daily basis over a career is dangerous and it is exhausting.
As you can see the writing is good, and Watson’s stories are interesting and affecting… but I’m having a hard time getting over the fact that she throws my profession under the bus.
Many of you probably know that I’m a medical interpreter who helps non-Japanese speakers communicate with doctors and staff at a Japanese hospital. It’s an important job because without correct and complete information about symptoms, family history, and so many other things it’s difficult to arrive at a correct diagnosis and provide adequate care.
Strike one – Watson calls interpreters “translators”. It’s a distinction many don’t know (translators = written word, interpreters = spoken), so I can let that slide. But then there’s strike two – she continues and says that in the emergency department they forgo calling qualified interpreters because using family members is faster and easier.
There are arguments against [interpretation] from non-experts; a suspicion, on the part of the nurses and doctors, that the words are being softened and not translated precisely, but it’s quicker than finding a[n interpreter].
There aren’t just arguments – it comes down to professional ethics and morals. It is a health provider’s duty to provide the best care, and asking a daughter or brother to relay important, detailed, technical information under stress can go wrong in so many ways. Interpreter codes of ethics state that even professionals shouldn’t interpret for friends and family, the conflict is so great. Watson blithely dismissing the right of limited English speakers to have a qualified interpreter, to have access to critical information about their health in a language they understand, makes me see red. Looking at the importance she places on ethics in other parts of the book it becomes galling. Gah.
I admit it, I pretty much glowered at the chapters after that. The writing and stories brought me around again so I can still recommend the book to fans of medical non-fiction, but not as wholeheartedly as I would like.