Not in my role as a leader or practitioner of leadership development – I’ve done my apprenticeship in that regard through 20 years of learning. No, I feel like a fraud as a staff member of the NHS. True, I spent four years at the King’s Fund – and did good work I hope in developing leaders from across the service. But the King’s Fund sits on the sidelines of the NHS – commenting, supporting, critiquing – but never inside, it’s not with and amongst the NHS.
‘The NHS belongs to the people…’
My own real experience of the NHS has come not as a clinician or manager but as a service user. When I think back, there have been years where I slipped along with only the lightest of brushes with the NHS. But there have also been years where I was what you might call an enthusiastic customer. ‘Highlights’ (not really the best word) started early with the four month hospital stay I had as a toddler when I poured scalding water down my chest (I still bear the scars). Then there was the recovery from a near-fatal car crash when I was in my late 20s, including the reconstruction of my shattered right humerus that took 4 years and several operations to mend. Then there was the safe delivery of both my kids by alternate routes (caesarean and traditional) and the simple, yet parentally, scary tummy operation to my first born when he was just nine weeks old.
‘…It is there to improve our health and wellbeing, supporting us to keep mentally and physically well, to get better when we are ill…’
My sister’s not a fraud though – she’s the real deal. Claire (@ckentone) has 28 years service as a nurse, sister and matron. I carry Claire in my head. I ask myself questions like ‘What would Claire say about that budget?’, or ‘How would that message land on Claire leading real care teams?’ She’s always been an inspiration to me – she’s a natural staff leader and a developer of teams. Over the past 10 months, since I joined the NHS full time, she’s also been my sense check, my conscience, and my source of on-the-ground, lived experience, warts-and-all coalface reality.
‘…It works at the limits of science – bringing the highest levels of human knowledge and skill to save lives and improve health….’
That said, I’m having quite enough on-the-ground experience of my own at the moment. If you follow my blogs (and seriously – there’s no need to – they range from mildly insightful to genuinely irrelevant) then you might have read my blog ‘It’s personal’ about my discombobulating summer and the wonderful care and fabulous skill of professionals in diagnosing and removing a brain tumour from my 10 year old daughter. To bring you up to speed, I accompanied Sophie back to King’s last week for a follow up MRI scan. The scan confirmed that the tumour removal was fully successful, and Sops continues to recover, supported with exceptional NHS care.
Anyway, we were planning on a half-term break – a holiday to France to replace the one lost in August. Then my mum’s cancer went from worrying-but-not-urgent to fully end-of-life.
‘…and, when we cannot fully recover, to stay as well as we can to the end of our lives…’
Six weeks ago mum was winning golf competitions – then things suddenly changed. My fabulous sister has been leading the familial support as mum declined rapidly. Tonight, mum’s dying in a hospital side room. I arrived 4 days ago to take over the nightshift. I found myself, for the second time this year, observing NHS care from the vantage point of a reclining armchair. This time it’s Shouldham Ward in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn. The hospital is all over the local press at the moment – following critical reviews from the CQC and NHS England, Monitor have this month placed the Trust special measures, accompanied by a raft of executive job changes. However things are at the most senior levels, on Shouldham Ward the care continues with the highest standards of professionalism and compassion. Interesting that two of the four CQC warning notices call for improvements in staffing levels and supporting workers – the real deliverers of care.
‘…It touches our lives at times of basic human need, when care and compassion are what matter most.’
I watch the nurses coming into mum’s room. They greet me gently, with no condescension or uncomfortably pitying sympathy. They know mum is more or less unconscious on a cocktail of pain relief and sedatives delivered by an automated syringe-driver. Yet they still softly call her name before surprising her with their touch. They look after me, and dad too when he’s here during the day – simple things like a cup of tea for me or a meal for dad as he sits for hours with his wife of over 50 years. The nursing care is gentle, compassionate and helpful.
At a different time, in a different blog, I’ll talk about the sick disparity between how we treat dying people in this country and, say, our dying pets. Suffice to say that, right now, the care is wonderful and is within the law, but the law is not wonderful and is without care.
Why am I writing all this now? Well, partly it’s selfishly therapeutic – helpful to me to share my thoughts and feelings beyond the side room in which I sit. But there’s a bigger goal here too. My daughter’s amazing rescue from a brain tumour. My own urgent recovery from a wrecked car. The painstaking rebuilding of my right arm. My mum’s compassionately held end-of-life. My sister’s dedication to leading people in the delivery of care. All these things and more were provided by the NHS and the wonderful people working in it, dedicated to the care of others. Team NHS. Not perfect. Often maligned. And yet, a precious national jewel that we must cherish, develop and protect.
My mum died on Friday at 4pm. As was I think fitting, my fabulous matron sister was with her at the end, supported by two wonderful nursing colleagues. Meanwhile, a hundred miles away, I was in King’s with Sops viewing her clear and positive MRI brain scans. Two hospitals. Two loved Ms Lakes. One NHS.
The opening paragraph of the NHS Constitution in full:
The NHS belongs to the people. It is there to improve our health and wellbeing, supporting us to keep mentally and physically well, to get better when we are ill and, when we cannot fully recover, to stay as well as we can to the end of our lives. It works at the limits of science – bringing the highest levels of human knowledge and skill to save lives and improve health. It touches our lives at times of basic human need, when care and compassion are what matter most.