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Bedpans and Bandages Episode 1: the review

February 18, 2014

So what I want to know is, who was that bloke who helped nervous newbie Alistair bed bath Raymond in Student Nurses: Bedpans and Bandages? It wasn’t ultra-focussed staff nurse James (“the kitchen…that’s the important bit”) and, because his uniform was subtly different from Alistair’s, he didn’t seem to be another student either. My guess is that he was a Health Care Support Worker. It says a lot about the real value we place on personal care that the member of staff who, at least in this episode, was seen to be performing the lion’s share of it (he later took the lead when he and Alistair returned to ease Raymond’s pressure areas) as well as teaching Alistair how it’s done, remained anonymous, dignified with neither name nor job title.

Reactions to Bedpans and Bandages have been a bit mixed. While Twitter’s nursing community was practically incontinent with excitement, The Guardian‘s TV Reviewer Sam Wollaston was distinctly underwhelmed. ‘As television’ he wrote, ‘it’s a non-event. This kind of programme needs certain elements: extraordinary characters, drama, or…a rare glimpse inside an unfamiliar world. Other recent hospital shows…have had at least one or two of those elements. This one has none. Zzzzz’.

To be honest, a show about student nurses is always going to hold more fascination for people who are themselves nurses than it is for the public at large. We all love to be critical from the safety of our armchairs, showing off to our nearest and dearest our insider knowledge of how “you don’t do it like that!” or else (for those without a nearest and dearest) shouting it at the telly. But for many of us, the question uppermost in our minds as we tuned in was this: after all the negative publicity, the Francis Report, the ‘too posh to wash’, the accusations of ‘institutionalised cruelty’, are we finally going to see nursing, and in particular, nurse education, in a more positive light? Well, yes and no.

First, the good bits. It was genuinely touching to hear likely-lad Alistair describe how nursing could give his life meaning. “If I can save one life being a nurse” he said “what an achievement that is in life” – and no, Mr Professional Cynic Wollaston, I don’t believe that his decision to enter the profession was really just about ‘impressing girls’. Maximum respect also to Dany, who by my calculations must be getting on for fifty, but was well on the way to turning her life-long ambition – to be a nurse – into a reality. Up and down the country, women of a certain age will have taken heart from what she’s achieving, and rightly so.

But there were also some worrying aspects. For instance, the classroom input. The whole premise of the programme was that nurses who are training now will be more academic than those who went before. This point was hammered home by the narrator in the opening minutes: “At Uni’s all over the country” he breezily informed us – over a soundtrack of busy, dynamic music – “a very different generation of nurses is now being born.” Cut to lecture theatre, where lecturer is thrilling the assembled company with the news that “this is what we’re looking at today – the renal system”. The renal system? For goodness sake mate, not being funny, but students were learning about the renal system in Florence’s day. I want to see how the ‘very different generation’ is living up to its billing by being taught how to question and challenge – and I want to see it presented as a good thing.

And then there was that whole Dany/Hilda situation. Actually, this is more of a gripe about editing than anything else. Hilda was an elderly lady whose story was followed over two days. On day one, she was admitted feeling very poorly with a seriously elevated heart rate. Dany and her colleagues were plainly concerned. They were shown monitoring Hilda’s observations, making her comfortable and trying to reassure her – kindness and compassion were on display in spades. What was not shown was any attempt to secure the right treatment. In fact it was apparently not until late morning on day two, when Dany made a referral to Trevor, the rather wonderful cardiac Clinical Nurse Specialist, that even a tentative diagnosis was offered.

Trevor exuded competence and calm: knowledgeable, proactive, a good teacher, totally on top of his game – attributes re-enforced by the voice-over. As we watched our man study Hilda’s notes, it was admiringly explained that “Nurses like Trevor are experts in their field, taking on many of the roles once carried out only by doctors”. What a pity then, that we saw so little of his interaction with Hilda herself. I’m sure it would, like Dany’s, have been very caring. As things were, and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we were left with the impression that nurses can be either compassionate but ineffective, or efficient – ‘like doctors’ – but a bit lacking in the empathy department. The possibility that a nurse could combine both characteristics – compassion and knowledge – in a single person, remained unexplored. It all added up to a poor advert for nursing.

To those viewers who were not health care professionals, the impression must have been that the ward nurses in charge of Hilda’s care did almost nothing to address her obvious cardiac problems until she had been in hospital for at least twenty-four hours – apart, that is, from standing around wringing their hands and (literally) mopping her fevered brow as her heart rate climbed to a life-threatening 167. Your life in their hands? No thank you.

But is this really how it was? I very much doubt it. Hamfisted editing meant that the bit where the nurses said ‘Duh! Let’s call a doctor!’ was left on the production suite floor. If you want the proof that much, much more was going on than made it to our screens, look no further than Hilda’s right arm, which by day two was unaccountably cradled in a sling. How did that happen? Search me. The point is though, that what the public thought went on is, in a case like this, far more important than what actually went on. And what the public probably thought was, as my friend Mr Wollaston so helpfully summarised: ‘Dany doesn’t know what she’s doing yet’. Unfair assessment? Quite possibly – but still the one that most people will have taken away with them.

So what did we learn from our first glimpse of Bedpans and Bandages? Well, one practical tip: people of Raymond’s generation were brought up to believe that not getting dry – properly dry – after any encounter with the aquatic element spells certain death – and they’ve never forgotten it. Secondly: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with student nurses. On this showing, they are compassionate, motivated and hard-working. But despite all the hype about ‘a very different generation’, old stereotypes die hard and there was scant attempt here to put them out of their misery. The nursing role was portrayed as fragmented and poorly-defined. Do nurses give personal care? No, that’s mostly left to un-persons in unflattering tunics. Do they ‘take on many of the roles once carried out only by doctors?’. Yes, they do that. Do they offer help and comfort to frightened patients? Yes, they do that too. Do they do both at once? Er…can I get back to you on that one?

Hang about though, who’s this coming through the consulting room door? It’s children’s Staff Nurse Katie – casting an expert eye over baby Caius’s rash before reassuring his anxious mum that he doesn’t, repeat doesn’t, have meningitis. Phew!  Relief all round and hurrah for Katie: knows her stuff and knows how to communicate it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the complete package! Let’s hope we see plenty more like her in the coming weeks.

For Sam Woollaston’s review of Bedpans and Bandages for the Guardian, see

Could you write a review of an upcoming episode of Bedpans and Bandages? Contact me via Twitter to discuss.

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