Back in 1973 at The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, no-one talked about compassion. You were either a good student nurse or a bad one. Or, as in my case, one with plenty of room for improvement.
It was a Saturday lunchtime, and I was in handover on the infectious ward. I was allocated four patients, all very sick. One was a child with a pungent, disabling skin condition who needed all-over applications of ointment every four hours, which had to be given in a hot cubicle while she complained vociferously. My face must have shown my dismay, because the ward sister, who wasn’t known for sympathy towards students, followed me as I trudged off to prepare my trolley.
Over the next hour, she taught me how to give pain relief at just the right moment so it took the edge off while the treatment was given. Without telling me what she was doing, she demonstrated care and concern to a frightened child even when swathed in gown, mask and gloves. And when we had finished, she found a tiny patch of unblemished skin on the side of the little girl’s face to stroke softly while our exhausted patient drifted off to sleep.
As we tidied up, she told me that this child had spent most of her life in hospital and was unlikely to live long.
I have never forgotten that day. Since then, I have always tried to see the person behind the condition, to listen carefully, and do my best for every patient and every family, as a nurse and later as a leader.
Yes, we need enough staff, but a numbers game alone can be dangerous. I have been a very sick patient myself, and the mother of someone who needed life-saving NHS care. I would rather be looked after by one good nurse than several bad ones. Good nurses combine expertise, with attention to giving care safely and efficiently, and kindness.
That combination is what constitutes a compassionate service. I will never forget being in agony and a wonderful staff nurse called Barbara giving me IV pain relief at 6.00 am in A&E in Brighton. She embodied compassion. As did my daughter’s brilliant neurologist, and the WRVS lady who made my mother and me a cup of tea the weekend my father died.
To provide a compassionate service, our people must be treated with compassion and see others treated with compassion. Admonishing or shaming NHS staff to be kind is pointless and counterproductive. There is something paradoxical about the call from some quarters whenever anything goes wrong (and sometimes even when it hasn’t) for heads to roll.
There will always be a need for whistle-blowing; there are a small number of bad people in this world, and they are attracted to working with the vulnerable. We must all have our ears and eyes open, and act on what we hear and see. Sometimes, well-intentioned people make bad decisions that need to be challenged. Incompetence must of course be tackled, but with compassion. We need to know what compassion looks like. It is much more common in the NHS than cruelty or indifference. The public who use our NHS services know this.
In a compassionate NHS, we will be honest with the public about the best way to provide different sorts of treatment and care, and truthful about what we can achieve with the knowledge and resources available. We will remember that each of us will die one day, and talk with patients and their families openly and with sensitivity about their wishes and fears. And when things go wrong, as from time to time they inevitably do in a business where everything is high risk, we will be open about mistakes so that we and all our people learn.
Lisa Rodrigues CBE, Chief Executive, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Follow Lisa on twitter @LisaSaysThis