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Being a lighthouse

February 11, 2015

A guest blog by Joan Pons Laplana (@thebestjoan), proud nurse and caremaker

After reading Sarah O’Donnell and John Walsh’s blog and the subsequent answer from Grumbling Appendix, I decided to give my own opinion about it.

I consider myself part of #teamshiny and I undoubtedly think that our NHS needs more shiny people who act as a lighthouse trying to bring a ray of sunshine into our lives every day. But I also agree with some of the points that Grumbling Appendix makes on her blog. Nurses need a reason to shine, but in the climate we live in today, it’s very difficult to find reasons to constantly shine.

I firmly believe that our work is about being a positive and supportive presence for our patients, colleagues and service. Having a positive attitude makes a huge difference, not only for the people who surround you, but also for yourself. Smiling is contagious and having a positive attitude makes things easier. Having a positive attitude will make you happier; it will improve your relationships; it can make you a better person and definitely it can make life better for everyone around you.

But I can also see Grumbling Appendix’s view. The NHS is going through a tough time; one of the main issues is the lack of engagement and low morale of its frontline staff.

We are constantly reminded that we need to work more efficiently and effectively and do more with less. NHS bosses ask us to go the extra mile on a daily basis, but unless frontline staff feel supported and engaged, the extra mile is impossible to achieve. Ask staff how they are feeling, and the most common response you will get is STRESSED! And when the stress increases, passion automatically goes down and the ability to go that extra mile disappears.

It is therefore very important to have role models like Sarah O’Donnell; but I can also see that presently, it is difficult to shine, and the easiest option is to become ‘unshiny’ and institutionalised. I know that because it happened to me not so long ago.

I started my career as a nurse for the wrong reasons; I was nineteen and I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. My dad told me I had to go to university if I wanted to make something of myself. My application was rejected by six different universities because I didn’t have the right grades. I went into nursing instead.

As a young male nurse, I loved action and technology, and so fitted well into the Accident and Emergency (A&E) environment. After my Nursing Diploma, I undertook a degree in Management of the Critical Care Patient and then worked in various very busy A&E’s around Barcelona. Work was intermittent, so I decided to pursue my career in England. I landed in Sheffield on Bonfire Night 2000, and I was quite impressed by the reception and all the fireworks in the sky

Unfortunately, my English was not good enough to allow me to work in A&E, primarily because, in my opinion, they speak another language in Yorkshire! I therefore worked in the Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU), where the ventilators, pumps and gadgets played to my interests. However, my primary focus was technology; I became very ‘Competent’, but Care, Compassion, Communication, Courage and Commitment were not my priority.

All that changed one weekend when I was allocated the care of a young lad who had been in a care accident. He was being nursed in a cubicle; his body was battered red, with multiple fractures. He was ventilated, and had various drains and pumps in situ. At the time, he was an ideal patient for me, because my nurse vision was primarily performing tasks. But towards the end of the shift, he asked me what was outside the little window at the end of the cubicle. The following day, he again asked me what I could see from the window and if I could move his bed close to it. Initially, I thought he was joking, but he was dead serious. I told him it would be physically impossible.

That night, I went home and I couldn’t stop thinking about his request. The next day, I asked to nurse him again. This time, I asked him if he wanted to see the view. I still remember his face: it lit up with a big smile from ear to ear. It took me nearly two hours to manoeuvre all the equipment safely around the room, but I was determined! We finally made it, and, like a miracle, a ray of sunshine came through the window and illuminated his face. He asked me to sit on his bed next to him, and for the next half an hour, we sat in silence, holding hands. It was a powerful moment, and we both ended up with tears rolling down our cheeks. For the first time, I understood what Care and Compassion meant. On that day, I fell in love with nursing; my job became my passion. I still remember that immense feeling inside me on that day – I made a difference to somebody. For the first time, I was proud of being a nurse.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The following day, I was called in Matron’s office and reprimanded for ‘breaking all health and safely rules’ and ‘putting my patient at risk’. I went back to my safe mode of performing tasks. I became institutionalised again. It was the only option to survive – but I was not the same; something inside me was different. I was constantly looking for ways to experience that same feeling again, but I became frustrated. I went home at the end of every shift demoralized, deflated and sad. I started to drift in my nursing career and ended up working on the nurse bank, where I became even more detached and unappreciated. I was feeling undervalued and unable to make the difference. Because of that, I became emotionally drained and I started to develop negative attitudes and feelings towards the patients, and a growing devaluation of my own competence. I could say my care was compromised. Definitely, I was not shiny.

It was like a marriage going sour. Nursing was not for me any more, but luckily I gave it one last chance before filing for divorce.

The question is: what made me become shiny? The answer? My change of attitude.

I decided to take control of my life – I decided I wanted to be happy. I also found a job that gave me space to shine and supported me – things that are not very common nowadays. I also found a community on Twitter where I felt surrounded by people who understood me.

With the passing of the years, it’s easy to forget why you became a nurse. You only need read the headlines: staff morale is at a record low. Nurses are leaving the profession in numbers never seen before…Grumbling Appendix is correct to say that if staff aren’t treated properly, they can’t shine. She asserts that the system doesn’t make it easy for us to shine. It takes a very strong person to be able to shine day in, day out, because reality hits us and it’s very easy to fall into a downwards spiral of negativity. Believe me – I have been there and got the T-shirt.

While we were at the supermarket last week, my own teenage son asked me “Dad, when are you going to stop buying shit value food?” I did not know the answer: my salary has been frozen for the fifth consecutive year and I am struggling more than ever to make it to end of the month. And I am not alone: more and more nurses are struggling. The number of nurses applying for benevolent grants is soaring. We need a salary that allows us to put decent food on the table and a roof over our heads. How can we ask nurses to shine if we can barely take proper care of ourselves?

My shout is that we need to be shiny and rebel against the system. And I have some handy hints!

1. Spend as much time as possible with people you like. The happiest people are social with strong relationships. Not spending more time with people we love is something we regret the most.

2. It may be hard at times, but being compassionate makes us happier.

3. Share the best events of your day with loved ones, and ask them to do the same. And compliment them. ‘But I’m an introvert!’ you say? A little bit of trying to be extrovert would do you good! Happiness is more contagious than unhappiness.

4. Celebrate our amazing achievements – we need to be more daring.

When I first developed the recent 6Csy event, my intention was to reignite the passion and desire to go the extra mile in frontline staff. I wanted to create a sense of community, to allow people to connect with each other, to create a group of people with a common set of values and beliefs. Delegates didn’t know each other, but somehow we all shared the same set of values and had something in common: we care and we want to make a difference. And when you surround yourself with people who believe what you believe, something magical happens: trust emerges. And when we have trust, we become more confident, we are able to take more risks, experiment and explore, knowing that somebody in the ‘community’ will watch our back, help when we fall and be there for us. Communities allow us to shine because they support us. That is the true power of a community, and I am a clear example.

Let’s all get together and support each other. Let’s all celebrate the amazing things we do every day. We need more people shining like a lighthouse in our care system – role models who give us inspiration. But everybody is different and needs different things to enable them to shine.

What would make you shiny? Let’s put the kettle on and have a proper debate.

Grumbling Appendix is grateful to Primary Care Nursing Review for permission to reproduce sections of this article that originally appeared in their publication. Thanks also to Deborah Glover for suggestions about editing.

  1. RGN007 permalink

    The main thing I pick up from your writing, is that you have learned from your experience and highly capable of self-awareness. Many people who consider themselves shiny in anything, nursing or not, can be people who judge others because they have not gone through the same experiences to have empathy in why others in their team might be struggling.

    I have been listening to a fascinating audio book by Steven Covey “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (Chapter 91) and so much of it is so relevant to not only how I think we should work together and see each other, but in personal lives as well. I am not clever enough to recall all the important bits, but much of his advice and philosophy is contradictory to the assumption that those who think alike should pat each others backs.

    Covey explained that we often see people in a dichotomy. If a person likes this then they must be not good at that. As with you and technology, I experienced the same. I only went into nursing age 16 (cadet) because my sisters were nurses and I could repeat the O levels I failed at school on day release in college. My real interest then were motorcycles, cars and the idea of computers in 1970 was barely a dream. Since my future fiance was a servicemen, by 1974 we were posted to the outback of Wales and the only option I had to restart my nursing training was as an SEN (State Enrolled Nurse) “the bedside nurse”. I was labelled a bedside nurse when my real interests were the science and technology. Other nurses, when I would advocate how the blossoming technology could help patients, resulted in sharp rebuffs or condescension such as, “Oh, I put the patients’ first”, or “You should be thinking about patient care”. The thing they never grasped was that I was putting the patient first but in my head I could see a picture ahead and the potential (ironically of what we do now), BUT that did not mean I did not have compassion as well, or did not do the practical work well. In fact, I was often asked by patients, “Can you look after me tomorrow?” or “No-one has explained it like that before”. I too often found myself crying with patients, holding their hands, but being introvert I chose to be there when the popular outspoken nurses were days off. I would be the one emptying the bins, taking the blood pressures, changing the beds until something happened, and my thinking differently often left others in surprise. I just clicked and went into action, then would retreat back into my corner.

    In nursing, I think we particularly see people in dichotomies where we must be unable to truly have compassion and care for patients if we dare to not be part of the herd and think like everyone else. Covey explains how by us all seeing things differently, we should take the time and benefit from considering those ideas that come from those who do not think like ourselves and the bit I add to his comment is not doing that makes us insular and resistant to being influenced by others who may actually have an idea we could join up with or use more successfully.

    Covey (my current book and not finished it yet but it is so pertinent) also describes how valuing the differences in how we think creates a synergy where the ideas of two ways of thinking can amount to greater solutions. We start to see those we normally exclude and think differently as “off-track”. Individuals believe they see the “larger picture” but will be limited by their own internal ideals and beliefs if they do not listen to why others have a different view. To not listening and understanding an alter view only serves to reinforce our own insular thinking from those who we perceive only think like ourselves. He goes on to say that valuing the differences helps us to recognise what is outside our own reality and states, “You see it differently, help me understand….if two people have the same opinion, one is unnecessary…release the negative energy invested in defending a particular position”.

    I used to see myself as a heretic in nursing because I see things differently but I also acknowledge I might not be right, but without understanding the views (and experiences) of those who disagree with our own views and taking them into the equation, I think nursing would be like a community that is self bred and unhealthy.

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