Sunday 28 November 2010

UK Hospital Death Rates

Some years ago I had to have a very minor examination at a local hospital. The waiting room was filled with other people waiting for the same exam and we all sat there mutely as the minutes ticked past our appointment times. A fat, slovenly nurse swaggered backwards and forwards doing bugger all and in the end I asked her sweetly what the wait might be about.  She looked at me with disdain and actually turned her back and walked away. I minced off to find her boss who, when I eventually found her, told us that the doctors weren’t on site. Like attempting to open an oyster I continued to ask this woman questions until she finally told me that the doctors would not be in at all that day.

A little later I needed another small exam in a different hospital. Same kind of hanging around, same kind of nurses filled with loathing and I kept my mouth shut almost as a kind of spiritual exercise. Until I couldn’t stand being treated so rudely, so roughly any more – this was just getting ready for the exam rather than the exam itself. In the end I simply woke up and said, “What’s your name?” A tense conversation ensued encapsulating the hospital policy on name badges, this woman’s behaviour and – the clincher – the fact that I used to be a nurse in this hospital. The shift in her attitude was polar; she couldn’t have been more attentive and apologetic. It was this that really got my goat: she was capable of caring but actively chose not to.

Visiting people in hospital I’ve seen nursing staff handle patients roughly, seen an elderly person stumble and put a hand onto a nurse for balance only to have that nurses face writhe with revulsion and push the patient off shouting, ‘Don’t touch me!’ I’ve heard a desperately ill patient in a cold ward ask a nurse to pull the covers up around his shoulders as she strode past yelling, “Do it yourself.” My neighbour wept and desperately called out to be taken home, such was his distress at his treatment. I’ve supported a friend as he made complaints about the treatment his father suffered and at every point the administrators were incompetent, abused their power and treated my friend as if he was an idiot.

The NHS is very good at emergency care. Our nurses, having to participate in regular professional development, have never been more professional. And hospitals are, as any person who’s been in a hospital recently knows, killing patients. What goes on in care homes is beyond description.

What has this to do with Pagan hospital chaplaincy?

The simple presence of a chaplain on the ward makes people behave better. I doubt that there’s any research to support this assertion because it would have to start with the proposal that some ward staff behave badly and as any researcher knows, ‘That which is observed, changes.” That’s partly the point, that when a chaplain, a person with power, authority and legitimacy, walks onto the ward (rather than a relative who has legitimacy between certain hours and no power or authority) things change, particularly for people who have any kind of faith.

We have the same responsibilities as any other person, whatever their professional designation, when it comes to reporting cruelty and bad practice, and making the judgment about whether to report or not can be difficult for all kinds of reasons. But chaplains, with our fantastic, transformative gift of liminality, have the power to talk with people in ways that other staff feel unable to. A part of our job, just by our presence, is to remind everyone that they’re individual human beings with all that this entails. The machine world has always existed, all of us use each other to validate our worldview, but sometimes just by saying, ‘I see you. I see you as a person rather than as a collection of qualifications and a uniform,” creates a massive shift in attitude. It reminds us that we exist. More than that, it reminds us that we are alive, warm, sentient and have the capacity to do a lot of good and also the capacity for self-awareness and appropriate shame instead of always submitting to our place in the hierarchy of ‘Just doing my job.’

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