On New Year’s Eve, when the majority of the country was happily celebrating the arrival of another year with champagne and parties I sat beside a broken, grieving mother cradling her dying baby.
As others hugged and wished each other happy new year, holding hands to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, I hugged this mother as her tears soaked the shoulder of my uniform and held her hand to try and give her the strength to make it through the next minute, the next hour and the rest of her life without her little girl.
When the shift was over I sat in my car and sobbed before driving home and crawling into bed, physically and mentally exhausted before getting up the next day to go back to work. The new day bought new patients and families so, despite being emotionally wrung out by the previous shift, I had to put a smile on my face and carry on providing hope and support for those who need it most.
I work as a nurse on one of the busiest and most intensive Neonatal Units in the UK and while babies don’t die every day it is an occurrence that is sadly far from uncommon. Although we have better technology and more effective treatments available to us than ever before there is still a limit to what we can do. Some babies are simply born to early; their tiny bodies so underdeveloped that all the technology in the world cannot replace or make up for the lost time in the womb.
My job, much as I love it, is emotionally tough and has become even more so since I became a mother myself. There are days when I get home and, before even taking off my coat or shoes, run straight upstairs to my son’s room so that I can see him sleeping peacefully and thank whatever entity who may be listening that I do not know what it is to lose a child. During my pregnancy I worried about my son being born prematurely and when I went into early labour at 26 weeks I was acutely, terrifyingly aware of what having a baby born 14 weeks early could mean. Fortunately the team on the Early Pregnancy Unit were able to stop labour before it became established and my son arrived 11 weeks later but it was one of the few occasions where I would have far rather have been ignorant as to what could happen.
I became a nurse because, as corny and cliched as it sounds, I genuinely wanted to help people. As I’m well aware, being admitted to hospital, either yourself or a loved one can be one of the most frightening times in someone’s life and I wanted to help make it that little bit less scary. I knew that the hours would be long and the shift patterns would be exhausting but I accepted these working conditions because I felt that they were fair. The pay may not be amazing but I am currently financially compensated for working night shifts and at weekends; working hours which are currently classed as ‘antisocial’
That, however, looks set to change.
I am a nurse, not a junior doctor and as yet my contract and working conditions aren’t subject to any change but what affects one staff group affects us all; our morale, our working environment and the quality of care we are able to give. Contracting junior doctors to work longer, more antisocial hours for less pay will have a direct impact on everyone who works alongside them because, despite different job titles and roles, we are all in this together. So if one staff group is exhausted and demoralised then the care we give as a team will be compromised because all the hugs and cups of tea in the world can’t make up for unfair and unsafe working conditions.
Like the doctors, there have already been times when work has meant that I’ve not been there for my own little boy. There have been bedtimes when I’ve not been there to read him a story and tuck him up in his cot and weekends when I’ve missed trips to the park. There will be times when I’m not there for Christmas or birthdays, sports days or prize givings or just days when life has been difficult for him and he’s in need of a cuddle and his mum to be there for him.
Equally, like the doctors there is no reason that, with the introduction of a 24/7 NHS, my pay won’t end up dramatically reduced and my shift patterns include even more weekends and night shifts that they do already. We have already sacrificed so much to be the best doctors and nurses that we can be; missing social occasions and milestones, amassing huge student debts and sinking hard earned wages into professional exams. We know that shift work is bad for our health, will reduce our life expectancy and we constantly worry about the effect that it has upon our families and relationships.
Yet we carry on, my colleagues and I, never knowing whether a shift will bring the joy being able to send a baby home with their delighted parents or the crushing sadness and defeat that comes when, despite our best efforts, a baby dies. We work day after day, trying to provide the best care possible even we are exhausted and have given so much or ourselves that we don’t know how there’s anything left. We do this during the day, the weekend, throughout the night and on special occasions where everyone else we know are with their families and loved ones with no more than a token grumble and the hope that someone bring us a tin of chocolates for the staff room.
So Mr Hunt, you who would reduce our pay, increase our working hours and make our working lives that much more difficult I’d like to ask you ‘What were you doing on New Year’s Eve?’
Louise is a full time mum, a part time neonatal nurse and award nominated blogger who has battled depression for many years but was particularly ill during her pregnancy. She lives with her husband (the Northern One) their little boy (Squidge) and their three guinea pigs who live in the kitchen.
Louise blogs at 23weeksocks (http://23weeksocks.com) about lots of different (and seemingly unconnected) topics that she’s passionate about, including mental health, antenatal depression, neonatal care and baby loss. She’s also involved in #MatExp (https://www.facebook.com/groups/MatExp/); an online maternity experience campaign that was formed to help improve maternity services in the UK. As part of this she hosts the #MatExpHour Twitter chat every Friday and would love to see you there.