Last night’s TV – Dispatches: Confessions of a Nurse

dispatches confessions nurse

In the aftermath of last week’s damning report into the “appalling failings” at Stafford Hospital, Confessions of a Nurse sought to “lift the lid” on what it’s really like to work as a nurse in NHS hospitals, and it wasn’t a pretty picture.

And despite one ex-nurse saying, “The managers might know what goes on at night but certainly the general public don’t,” anyone who’s ever been in hospital overnight would doubtless disagree with her… we are very well aware of what goes on. This particular Nurse was sacked for selling knickers on eBay during a night shift using her NHS email address… so I didn’t drop dead of shock to hear she’d been given the boot.

Confessions of a nurse didn’t tell me anyway, anything I didn’t already know, and I’m sure it was the same for anyone who’s ever been in an NHS hospital or indeed, ever reads the papers or listens to the news. However well any particular hospital scores on the various surveys, targets and polls it’s subjected to, staff shortages, sometimes staff indifference and always a lack of money make any trip to, or stay in, an NHS hospital of a nightmarish quality for many…

Without question, the majority of nurses are dedicated, hard-working – over worked in fact – professionals who do their very best under what are sometimes battlefield-like conditions, but there are a number who are far from ‘angels’ and I’ve personally met one of two during a long stay in hospital last year.

However, for the nurses for whom nursing is a vocation – such as my sister for example, who comes home with blisters on her feet and dehydrated because she hasn’t had time for a break – those interviewed last night found many aspects of what boils down to lack of money in the NHS caused them to have to neglect some patients as well as wear themselves to a frazzle in the process, and not surprisingly, they found it distressing.

One nurse said last night, “The most worrying thing for me is to find a patient dead behind a closed curtain and this has actually happened in our department. The patient was brought in by ambulance and was not looked at or not even checked by staff members, only to find that half an hour later the patient has passed away.”

The fact is, this is not a unique – nor by the sounds of it – uncommon occurrence. Nor is it uncommon to find patients who are not given medications when they’re needed, not changed or washed and even sometimes not fed unless they can feed themselves.

A survey of 1,000 nurses and midwives came up with some frightening statistics; 40% of nurses have experienced situations where a patient’s life – or several patients’ lives – has been put at “unnecessary risk”. 55% have shouted at, or witnessed a colleague shouting at, patients, and 8% have witness colleagues being violent towards a patient while 22% of nurses admit they’ve been forced to ignore patients due to being understaffed on their ward.

As well as hearing about the failings within the NHS from nurses, we heard testimony from relatives of patients who received appallingly bad care, and it was distressing to hear. But again, you’d be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t have a tale of woe about being at the mercy of the NHS if they’ve ever been an inpatient… I personally have several.

It spoke volumes when we heard last night that 33% of the nurses surveyed would leave nursing if they could. That’s a very high figure and surely it’s time somebody in the upper echelons of the NHS asked themselves why? One good example of why is what we heard from one midwife,

“You might just have two midwives for 30 women on the post-natal ward. Six of them might have caesarean sections. They don’t get their pads changed. They might sit in the bed bleeding.

“They rest of them are likely to be breast feeding, and lots of women want help with breast feeding and they don’t get it.

“The monitors are left on, but there’s no one to actually physically look at the babies’ heat rate tracing, so you could miss foetal distress or any other problem with the mum as well.”

And here are just a few more of the statements made by nurses last night;

“Some days you’ll be able to give a really good quality care, other days if you’re pushed they will get the bare minimum.”

“Sometime we are forced to cut corners. A patient will be sitting in one of the rooms, blood not being taken, or not given analgesia as well. We know the situation; that patients are waiting, treatment is being delayed. We don’t have enough staff, doctor-wise or nurse-wise, and we know as staff that somehow something might happen which we would not be able to catch on time.”

“If patients feel frustrated and stressed and not happy with the service, it’s not only them; we nurses on the other side of the fence also feel the same. Much as we want to give them more we are not able to give them what we want to.”

“There are a lot of scenarios in daily nursing and blood products being one, cutting corners, not checking things as they should. Other examples are obviously cleaning of areas for infection. I see regularly nurses walking out of cubicles with gloves still on, they’ve forgotten to take them off and it’s because they’re rushed, so therefore they haven’t decontaminated before they come out of a room.

“Lots of the things we do because we’re rushed and pressured do put us at risk of discipline. If you admit to doing something because you are tired or forget, you are also a risk of being disciplined.”

“I come home after a day shift or a night shift and the thought of doing anything extra is just away from my mind. You know, I’m so tired. My feet hurt. I haven’t had a meal break sometimes. I haven’t had a wee, because I haven’t had a drink for 12 hours.”

“I still try and approach each shift thinking that it’s going to be a busy day and I’m not going to get a break and I’m going to be 13 hours on my feet, and then if it’s not like that come the end of the shift, then that’s great.”

“I’ve seen a drink put on the table out of the reach of a patient who cannot now take a drink themselves. I’ve seen patients who were not getting enough fluids in the day. But on a busy ward, there are bound to be omissions, aren’t there?”

“The staffing levels and the workload mean that wherever I am I feel I should be somewhere else, and whatever I’m doing I feel I ought to have done earlier.”

This Dispatches documentary was shocking in content but not by any means revelatory; we all know what an appalling state the NHS is in and nurses are literally on the front-line and have a job that I wouldn’t do for any amount of pay. In the main – with luckily few exceptions – I admire nurses tremendously.

We’d like to hear your experiences of NHS hospital care too, and what you thought of last night’s Dispatches, and if I may hark back to just a couple of my own experiences when I had a long stay in hospital last year, there were some nurses I just dreaded seeing coming onto a night shift and equally, some who caused me to heave a sigh of relief when I saw them…

Without doubt, nurses are pushed to the absolute limit by understaffing and a lack of resources but then again, as happens in any employment sector, some are just lazy and don’t want to do the job so will do whatever they can to avoid doing it. I’ve seen patients ignored because they’re getting on the nurses nerves and I’ve personally experienced how frightening it is to press the nurse call bell and have it not answered when you’re afraid you’re about to die.

I found that this sort of thing happened especially at night when often, I simply couldn’t find a nurse, until – on some nights – I looked in the staff room and found them asleep, on their mobiles to boyfriends or watching telly. As was highlighted briefly last night, similar misdemeanours have included nurses arriving drunk for work or having sex in empty rooms while patients fended for themselves.

That said, these nurses are in the minority and usually, if I couldn’t find a nurse in the night it was because there were about three of them between several bays of patients who were mostly elderly, many of whom had dementia, were doubly incontinent and needed constant attention. It was simply more than the pitifully few nurses were able to deal with.

However, on the nights when the ‘dreaded’ nurses were on duty, they simply ignored the fact that for instance elderly patients were wandering the corridors naked, covered in faeces and often in great distress. At those times, it was fellow patients who most often took care of them.

Again, I can’t stress enough that I know that type of nurse is in the minority; during my stay, two nurses in particular on a night shift went above and beyond the call of duty – and got themselves yelled at by sleeping doctors – to get morphine prescribed for me.

One was a nurse called Pancy and she was quite literally an angel… she sat and rubbed my back where the pain was centred, she made me a home-made “cool glove” out of crushed ice inside a latex glove to cool a rash I had between my fingers and she and the matron, Kevin, spent literally hours on the phone, as I said, getting yelled at for waking doctors, to get me some pain relief.

It’s nurses like Pancy and Kevin who the NHS cannot afford to lose and who are truly dedicated to their jobs and their patients. Without nurses of their quality and ilk, the NHS would be in a far worse state than it is now and someone needs to take notice of how stressed and pressurised these wonderful nurses are and do whatever it takes – i.e., allocate more money for staff and equipment – to ensure they stay in the NHS.

Without the dedication of nurses like them and my sister for example, many more thousands of patients would die on our wards, and in the main, those deaths may not even be recognised as having been preventable.

Please do let us know your thoughts on the programme and your experiences of NHS hospitals and nurses, good or bad.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.