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Archive for April, 2013

Hospital stories

I’ve just finished a project which was – for me – stretching, rewarding, a bit nerve-wracking, and ultimately rather poignant.  The hospital’s arts team, Gill Greaves and Kat Hetherington, along with Dave Fleming of York Stories offered me the chance to spend some time as ‘Writer in Residence’ at York Hospital.  The brief: to gather the ‘backstories’, not of patients, but of staff at the hospital: everyone from surgeons to porters, security staff to administrators.  And not so much their working lives, as what made them who they are today.  Our aim: to produce a book about some of these busy people, to give patients in waiting rooms a glimpse into the human beings behind the uniforms, and thus, in a small way, to humanise the whole hospital experience.

Most of us, if we enter a hospital as a suffering or anxious patient, see the nurses and doctors, but not the vast citadel of supporting professions that make everything tick.  Standing in the hospital cafeteria looking out for the morning’s interviewee, I would scan the passing knots of workers with their different uniforms, different body language, and had the sense of this place as a very industrious town – an old-fashioned kind of town where each person knows precisely his or her own place and purpose, and how they fit together with everyone else’s.

Then, out of the melee would come one cleaner or nurse scanning the crowd just like me, and we would sit down for our interview.  Interviewees were recommended to me as people who had something to tell, and liked to tell it.  Most of them had been working at least twenty years and had seen changes in the hospital – and in wider society – during that time.

So I heard about hospital staff’s other lives: as single mums, Harley-Davidson riders, ukelele players, artists, charity fundraisers.  I heard too about their previous lives, as policemen, RAF officers, wild children, army wives, classical scholars, children in care, ballgown hirers.  I found out all about their training in the NHS, much of it in the 1960s and 1970s in different times, when ‘ward sisters were dragons’, or when ‘there used to be a lot of practical joking’, or ‘there were a lot of characters about’ – all things which everyone assured me were no longer the case.

It became a bit like the old cliche of asking all the men in the darkened room what the elephant in the room looks like: people answer either, “it’s big and flat and flappy”, or “it’s long and stringy like a bell pull”, or “it’s like a long powerful hose” – because each of them can only feel one bit of it from where they are standing.  But gradually, after interviewing 10 or 11 people from different professions, I started to get a feel for what the elephant really does look like.  The elephant being the hospital – and also, in a way, the NHS over the past few decades.

What everyone agreed was that, despite the bureaucracy and efficiency drives, subcontracting and targets, and the fact that there’s no slack or tolerance nowadays for pranks and messing about, the NHS still runs on a vast reserve of good will.  It is still a sort of enormous family, or society in microcosm; as one doctor told me, “The backbone of the hospital is altruism.”  One cleaner explained that her manager understands that if she sees an elderly person wandering lost about the hospital, she will take some time off cleaning to go and help them. 

My overwhelming sense was that this healthy ecosystem is both very precious and very fragile.  I was told how the subcontracted security staff are still proud members of the hospital family, still join in charity fundraising with the A&E nurses – but there was an unspoken feeling that this sense of community was highly dependent on key individuals making sure it happened, and on this particular hospital being a well-functioning community.  It wouldn’t happen by itself. 

All the stories will, hopefully, soon be available in all the hospital’s waiting rooms for your perusal!  Let’s hope that the NHS’ stories continue to be rich and human for many decades to come!

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