A few of my Rants

Desperately Seeking Florence Nightingale


I imagine most peoples picture of 'Nursing' is something like the attendant, devotedly mopping the fevered brow of the patient, in the death scenes of the Victorian painters.

Today we have all manner of technical marvels to keep the patient alive, but the nurses have no time to provide this essential physical presence, and the hospitals have become almost completely impersonal. And even when relatives who could help are available they are often ignored, or even actively discouraged. Consider these scenes from the family album.

The first was in the old Jessie Mac, where my wife Sally was awaiting the arrival of our daughter. I was sitting quietly with her when a sister came in and told me I would have to leave, "as the woman in the next room is about to give birth, and these migrants make a terrible fuss." It would seem to me that this was all the more reason why Sally should have someone to reassure her as she waited to go through the same ordeal, but it was typical: in three shared births many of the nurses I encountered seemed to spend their time looking for pretexts to get me out of the way.

The next scene was in a local hospital, where I was coming out of the anaesthetic after an operation for piles. A nurse had been with me as I came to, but when I was out of danger I was wheeled to the ward and left. I lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness. When I was conscious my body was filled with an all pervading ache, and when I was unconscious I sensed the presence of a number of blurred figures - spirits, ghosts, I do not know, - dark, silent and sinister, waiting around the bed. I desperately longed for someone to hold to anchor me to the real world, and when an orderly came by I took hold of her arm, and pleaded with her to stay with me. But she quickly freed herself, and fled. Then the phone rang, and someone answered "Yes, Mrs Riordan, all is well, he is just coming round now." And, as I pleaded for her to come at once, "Oh, come in after lunch, say about three."

The third scene was in the Coronary Unit at Prince Henry's, where Sally was recovering from a heart attack. As I went in I saw the nurses chatting cheerfully in the centre of the ward around the monitors, with their erratically wobbling traces marking the struggles of the damaged hearts. Then I saw Sally in her cubicle, alone, slumped forward in an uncomfortable heap, a picture of misery. I re-arranged the bed, fiddled with the pillows, and got her comfortable for a while. But before long she would get restless, and I would have to start again. I stayed while I could, but I was close to breaking point myself, and eventually I had to leave her to what was clearly going to be a long and lonely night.

The last and saddest scene of all was in the hospital where Sally was sent when she first became ill. It was a shared ward and 90 year old Sarah, senile and incontinent, was in the next bed. We never saw her, but were immediately assailed by an unceasing monologue. "Sister, I need a bedpan." "Sister, I've dirtied my pants." "Sister, you are cruel to leave me here like this." "Sister! ......"

Mercifully Sally was quickly moved to a private room, but no-one could ease Sarah's woes. If she had been the family dog she would long since have been put out of her misery. We will not grant her this last mercy, but we cannot give her the loving, or the care, that would make her life bearable.

Last century the doctors could do little to delay our dying, but we could hope to die at home, with someone holding our hand as we went. Today they are very cunning at cheating us of death, but all too often only to leave us deprived of our dignity, an embarrassment to ourselves, and a trial to everyone around us. And, all too often, when at last we do escape we die alone, in strange and frightening surroundings, our bodies covered with wires and invaded by tubes, with the decaying trace on a screen the only witness to our going.


Roger Riordan

Originally written 5.3.86. Revised 16.10.95
 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019