12th May is International Nurses Day chosen as it is the birthday of Florence Nightingale. There will be many celebrations across the globe to say thank you to all the wonderful nurses who make a difference to so many lives. We thought it would be a great opportunity to interview one of our nursing rehabilitation assistants who last week marked 25 years of working at Mildmay Hospital.
Tell us a bit about your job at Mildmay
“I help and support the nursing staff. Basically I do all the jobs that a nurse does, but I cannot give out drugs or organise care plans. I will give support where it is needed, that might be taking a patient to an outside hospital appointment, helping with feeding a patient who can’t manage, or helping with transferring a patent from bed to chair.”
What was it like when you joined Mildmay in 1992.
“It’s gone by so quickly and I have so many memories! When I joined Mildmay in 1992 there was no rehabilitation it was all palliative care. I didn’t know anything about HIV, but I like a challenge and I learnt fast – you had to! You had to be on the ball.
I would often sit with patients who were dying, sometimes through the night, perhaps just simply holding their hands. I could be there for those people who didn’t have anyone else. They may not have felt able to tell their relatives -sometimes their family wanted nothing to do with them. It was really important to be there for them. As a team we all worked together for the patients, to make their time with us as good and as caring as it could possibly be. Every day people were dying, and so many young people -I thank God for the new drugs that we have today that save lives.”
That must have been emotionally tough time for you as well.
It was, especially seeing people who were alone, – but we did all we could, holding hands – a touch can mean so much. We also supported each other; we were a community of nurses. It was a hard time but we also laughed and sang- we often sang with the patients. No matter how stressed you feel inside, you try to never show it. It seems strange to say, but there were very happy moments, happy times as well as sadness. We kept our sense of humour and that was important. You learn coping mechanisms.
How did friends and family feel about you getting a job at Mildmay
Well I was thrilled! I had to be interviewed in front of a board of people and I was very nervous but also very well prepared!
There was so much stigma then, there still is stigma but then it was terrible. I’ve put a lot of my friends and family right over the years! When I first started some people said to me, what do you want to work there for! They were quite aggressive about it, but I gave them short shift! Mildmay was the first specialist HIV hospice at the time so some people were also genuinely interested.
When I came for that interview all those years ago I didn’t think I would get the job, but I did and I feel it was meant to be, I am meant to be here.
Do you think HIV Stigma is still a problem?
Unfortunately it is. Stigma causes so much misery and so many problems – HIV doesn’t discriminate, I’ve seen so many people come through those hospital doors and they have been from all walks of life. I am happy and very proud to tell people that I work for an HIV hospital, for Mildmay.
A lot of people have never heard of HIV causing brain impairment and it’s important that people understand HIV has not gone away and that it can cause very complex problems especially if people are diagnosed late. Stigma can prevent people getting tested and that’s a big problem.
How do you think things have changed over the years?
Well firstly HIV medication – anti-retrovirals, has changed everything. HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, but we still see patients who are terribly sick. At Mildmay we have moved from caring for people at the end of their lives to treating people with complex health problems, especially brain impairment caused by HIV.
It’s not as emotionally exhausting in that we are not witnessing so many people who are dying, but we treat and care for people with brain impairments and much more complex needs. That can be very very challenging. Sometimes patients are aggressive and abusive but we know it is often simply because they are sick and their brains are affected, a bit like dementia. I see people in a terrible condition, some can’t walk, talk or even sit up, then I see those same people walking out of here, completely changed, that is incredible. I know that is because of the wonderful work the whole team do and I feel proud to be a part of that. I go home at night and I feel yes, I have done something decent today.
What do you think makes Mildmay Special?
This place is a haven. Patients know they are in a safe place where the staff treating them understand. There is so much knowledge and experience here-Mildmay is a wonderful organisation and the nurses are simply incredible. I have so much respect for them and all they do every single day. The tireless and incredible care and compassion is simply amazing. I honestly cannot praise the nursing team here highly enough.
I remember once we took part in a workshop for a day and we had to work together to create a piece of art that represented how you felt about Mildmay. I made a Phoenix because although Mildmay has been through so many difficulties across the years, I know it will always rise stronger than ever.
What are some of the qualities that you think makes a great nurse
Trust is imperative, common sense, open mindedness, empathy – the ability to never ever judge, and patience -you need a lot of that! You can’t work in this job without compassion. Of course training and nursing skills, but you can’t do this job properly without those qualities. I think you need to be strong too, our nurses work like Trojans! Being able to work as part a team is so important as well, we support each other.
I think it is so important to remember that you are caring for a person. To look beyond their symptoms, I see a person not just their illness, every patient is an individual.
The nursing team here are the backbone of Mildmay, the frame that holds and brings together all the work and specialist treatment to give our patients the very best care.
Can you tell me of a moment when you felt you had made a difference
“There have been so many! A patient gave me a rose once – out of the blue!. He said – ‘this is for you, you smiled and gave me time when I was feeling down, you cheered me up so this is to cheer you up!’ Things like that you remember.
There was another time when I was walking to work and a bus stopped right in the high-street. The driver wound down his window and shouted to me. I was really confused and a bit worried. I went over to him and he simply said ‘Thank you, thank you for looking after my friend.’ I was amazed and so touched to know he had remembered me and that I had made a difference to his friend but also to him.
I remember when I hadn’t been working for Mildmay for that long; I was sitting with a patient who was dying and his girlfriend. She was talking to him, so desperate to hold on. He died in the early hours of the morning. It was only later that I realised I was totally exhausted, not because of the hours spent with them, but because I had taken on board all that emotion, I had to be strong. Later I got a letter from her to say thank you, from them both. It was such a beautiful letter and to know that just being there had helped so much meant a great deal to me.
Sometimes the loved ones of patients who had died would come to Mildmay, just to be close to where their relative or loved one had died. We would get messages and Christmas cards, people never forget you have helped see them through one of the hardest times of their life. When you love someone it’s hard to lose them but to know they had the best care possible means so much. When people say thank you, you know you’ve done a good job.
When you see someone who arrived so sick that you honestly thought they may not make it through going back home – that is a very good feeling – the best!
You must have seen one or two famous faces over the years
“Princess Diana was amazing, I missed her very first visit but she came lots of times. Sometimes she used to come in the evening, quietly without cameras. She would sit with patients, some who had no one else, just sit with them and talk. She had a real connection to Mildmay and I was so impressed with her for what she did, helping to show the compassion that was needed, not judgement, not stigma, just a bit of love. She was a lovely lady.
When Prince Harry came to open the new hospital at the end of 2015, well that went viral! There were photos and news clips every where. I had family ringing me up because they had seen it in the paper. I met Prince Harry and he asked if I had ever met his mother. I said I had and I told him – your mum was a lovely lady, she’s really missed – he thanked me and I just wanted to hug him. I thought how much he must miss her too! He met some patients who were bed-bound and very sick and I know that moved him. The impact of his visit on the patients was incredible and it was such a happy day. They were talking about it for days, it’s a special memory!
I can’t talk about everyone who came here, some were very private visits, but Mildmay has had many famous visitors. When Vanessa Redgrave came I was so excited as I really admire her. She was lovely, so gracious, kind and really down to earth, chatting to everyone. I love the theatre and cinema, I’m a real lovey! I spoke to her and welcomed her to Mildmay and she asked me how long I had worked here. Then she turned the badge on my uniform around which had got twisted and I nearly fell over!
I wasn’t on shift when Elizabeth Taylor came which was a shame, and I missed Linda Robson when she came recently, but I’m not complaining!
It’s wonderful to get the opportunity to meet these people but it’s the difference such visits make to the patents that make it truly special. It makes them feel valued and gives the day a real sparkle. Patients feel that they are not forgotten and someone cares.
When you started working at Mildmay in 1992 did you think you would still be here in 2017.
No way! I’ve seen so many changes and I can hardly believe I am still here, but it’s an incredible place and I am so proud to be a part of it.
You are such a bubbly person and clearly have such passion for your work
Our nursing director said to me once ‘don’t ever change’ and I doubt very much if I ever will!
Congratulations on 25 years at Mildmay Hospital!