The Language of Kindness: A nurse’s story of the child patients who moved her to tears

When Christie Watson took up nursing at the age of 17 she spent a lot of time crying.

She cried when she messed up her first injection and when a patient suffering schizophrenia became violent as she took his blood pressure .

She wept when she saw her first dead body and, after witnessing a dramatic birth, sobbed so hard her student uniform collar was soaked with tears.

But after two decades working in mental health, paediatrics, neonatal care, A&E and ICU, Christie’s tears dried up.

She says: “I was becoming emotionally numb to quite shocking events. I thought I’d got compassion fatigue.

"You become harder with every bit of cruelty you witness and I coped by developing a sick, sarcastic sense of humour.

“But there was always a patient who’d remind you of someone you loved and open you up again.”

Many of those patients feature in Christie’s best-selling memoir, The Language of Kindness, A Nurse’s Story.

It’s a poignant, powerful and emotional account of her 20-year career, but also a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by her colleagues on today’s front line.

Christie, 42, says nurses are facing “a perfect storm” of challenges that threaten the future of the profession and the NHS. She adds: “It is unbearably hard for nurses today.

“They are the most undervalued of all professions and morale is lower than ever. We’re 42,000 nurses short in England alone, applications have dropped because the Government scrapped the bursary which paid for their training.

“Nurses will be qualifying with massive debts and harder to keep in the profession. So who is going to deliver the NHS’s 10 Year Plan?

“The NHS is not failing. Nurses are not failing. They are BEING FAILED.”

Christie, from London, is a single mum to two children aged 10 and 13. She came off the nursing register last year and now writes full time and fights for staff as Patron of the Royal College of Nursing Foundation.

In her book, she recalls some of the patients who left a lasting impression… especially the youngest ones. Here are just three of their stories. Charlotte’s story

Two-year-old Charlotte has meningococcal sepsis . It can kill a child within hours. She is en route to the PICU [paediatric intensive care unit] and we get everything ready.

She arrives on a trolley covered in tubes already, a ventilator at her head end and a monitor by her feet.

Charlotte has no blood pressure. It is impossible to cannulate her, as her veins are too difficult to find.

Her leg is cold and pale, like a twig from a dying tree. We manage to resuscitate Charlotte and attach her to even more machines.

But the purple rash has spread. I know when I hand over, long after my shift should have ended, it is unlikely that Charlotte will be there in the morning.

She’ll need three nurses just to care for her and she’ll probably lose her almost completely dead and purple legs, and possibly her arms, too.

Children as sick as Charlotte have such a profound physiological compensatory response to illness that they shut down any part of their body that is non-essential.

Charlotte has kept her blood for her vital organs and has taken everything she can from her limbs.

But Charlotte is not done yet. Her body is fighting internally as much as our machines are fighting externally.

This will to survive, this powerful and physical defiance of death, is one of the reasons I’ve always loved working in children’s intensive care.

Still, before I leave, one of the doctors says: “We might need to amputate. Get the surgical team up here. It might save her, might not.” I look at the nurse taking over from me, who will likely hold Charlotte’s leg as it is cut off on the ward.

She is fairly junior and already this week has had to pull a mother off a child who died, the mother trying desperately to give him chest compressions after the team had stopped.

The surgeon will come and remove Charlotte’s leg. Then leave.

The amazing paediatric intensive care doctors will spend 10 minutes explaining what is happening, and why, to the family. Then leave.

The nurse will hold Charlotte’s leg as it is being cut off. Then she will sit with Charlotte’s parents through the entire night, performing her nursing tasks, as they ask her a million questions… “Is she in pain? Will she walk? Can she hear me? Is she dying?”

Charlotte should have died a hundred times over. She loses her legs and her fingertips. The extent of her illness is beyond the capabilities of our technology. Yet she survives.

And Charlotte’s will to survive lifts all of us. It is easier to do the job with children like her.

Easy to find the energy to be kind and to care, to prioritise, as do all nurse-parents at times, another child – a stranger – over our own.

And when Charlotte comes back to see us two years later, toddling on prosthetic limbs, smiling, looking well, holding her mum’s hand and chocolates for the nurses, we all stop whatever we are doing and crowd around.

I think of all the sunsets Charlotte will get to see. The golden skies. “Thank you,” her parents repeat over and over again. “Thank you.” And I suddenly feel. I feel so deeply that I have to hold my breath.

Charlotte is truly alive, and so am I. Tommy’s story

Tommy does not want to see the sun. He closes his eyes whenever I open the curtains, and screws his face up tightly.

Tommy is nine years old and paralysed from the neck down, following a road traffic accident.I look after Tommy for many consecutive nights over many months. Twelve-and-a-half hours when it’s often simply me and him. Tommy has spiky black hair, which his dad puts gel in every morning. Next to his bed is a small table with a photograph of Tommy, his mum, dad and cousins on holiday, drinking through long curly straws from coconuts.I wonder what he was like before. I provide all this physical care for Tommy, but it is his mind that needs nursing most of all.We talk through feelings. ‘I am not surprised,’ I tell him, when he mouths that he wants to go home. ‘I think I would feel the same. You must really miss the time before the accident.’I understand his desire to go home is a desire to travel back in time to his old life. He is not talking about a physical home. I read to Tommy that night, and many others when he can’t sleep, his eyes open too wide in the near-darkness. We read Harry Potter and, as the story develops, his eyes close a little: he escapes a fraction.He requires ventilating, his broken neck means he can no longer breathe unaided.He has such complex needs that it may take many months before he gets out, years even before he gets to his physical home. I listen to his mum and wonder how on earth she will cope when Tommy’s dad is working away. She also suffers with depression.Tommy’s 10th birthday arrives while he is on the ward.The nurses decorate his bed space with tinsel leftover from Christmas, stick up cards and balloons.But under the stark lights of the intensive care ward everything – even life – seems artificial.Tracy, one of the nurses, brings in some flowers from her garden.Tommy looks at them but then closes his eyes. Tracy loves him. She talks to him all day, as she washes him, rubs cream into his skin, stretches his legs out, the radio in the background. She dances, terribly, punching her hands in the air. It is the only time I see Tommy laugh.There is a mound of presents at the bottom of Tommy’s bed and his dad has a large sack of gifts when he walks in. “There’s the birthday boy.”He kisses Tommy’s face and they smile at one another.He starts pulling out presents one by one and piling them on the bed until Tommy is wide-eyed. When Tommy falls asleep his parents stay on the ward. “He wanted a bike,” his mum says. “I always promised him that he’d get one on his 10th birthday”.Her body folds in half. She holds her stomach. “I’m so sorry,” I say. The tears I am holding in burn my eyes.Tommy’s dad puts his arm around her and squeezes. “It’s temporary. He’s a fighter,” he says. “I know he’ll walk again. I just know it, love. Doctors get things wrong all the time.”He looks over at Tommy, who’s asleep surrounded by equipment and machinery. Then he turns to me and nods that slow nod you do when you want someone to agree with you.But all I can do is push my razor blade tears even further back and fake a smile. I look away, and focus on Tracy’s wild flowers. Jasmin’s story Jasmin is a 12-year-old girl on a ventilator, following a house fire.Her hair smells so strongly of smoke that we are reluctant to allow her family to see her. Jasmin’s brother lies a few […]

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