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'There were many times I was reluctant to take a drink of water in case I needed a bathroom break... I know that many nurses have been in that situation'

 

Christie Watson, author of a profoundly moving - and at times shocking - real-life account of life on the wards of our hospitals, is keynote speaker today at the annual congress of the Royal College of Nursing in Belfast. She tells Stephanie Bell how the care her dying father received prompted her to pen her outstanding memoir.

NHS nurse Christie Watson says it was normal for her to go thirsty at work rather than take a sip of water because she didn't have time for a toilet break. It's just one of a number of frank revelations in her brilliant new memoir, The Language of Kindness, A Nurse's Story, a poignant and powerful collection of stories about her 20 years on the wards in our crisis-hit health service.

The book - which is currently being turned into a TV drama by the same people who make Poldark - has won great critical acclaim, perhaps not surprising given that Christie has already earned considerable plaudits for her work as a writer. Her first novel in 2011, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, lifted the esteemed Costa First Novel Award and her second, Where Women Are Kings, also wowed critics.

A single mum to two children aged 10 and 13, Christie lives in London. While still a registered nurse, she teaches part-time as well as building her career as a writer.

She is visiting Belfast for the first time today where she will address hundreds of her colleagues as a keynote speaker at the annual congress of the Royal College of Nursing. The publicity surrounding her book has made Christie something of a champion for nurses, a role she is only too happy to take on.

She says that she poured her heart into the narrative, providing what she hopes will be a voice for nurses who "are the most undervalued of all professions".

Christie says: "I've never been to Belfast and I've never been to Ireland but I have friends there and they are all telling me the places I must visit and I am really excited. I'm also very much looking forward to the conference."

Among the many positive comments about her book, one critic said: "It made me cry. It made me think. It made me laugh. It encouraged me to appreciate this most under-appreciated of professions more than ever, and then to text a mate who's working as a nurse to meet up for a drink."

Another described it as "a moving, lyrical, beautifully-written portrait of a nurse and the lives she has touched".

In her book Christie takes us by her side down hospital corridors to visit the wards and meet her unforgettable patients, and her account shows that through the smallest of actions, nurses provide vital care and kindness.

It is this side of nursing which she feels strongly that people don't appreciate, and that's why she says she wants her book to be not just a memoir, but also a voice for nurses.

So what prompted her to make the move from fiction to record a real-life account of life on our hospital wards? "I did it for a couple of reasons. My dad died six years ago and suddenly I found myself on the other side of the fence.

"The importance of nursing and the importance of kindness dawned on me. I had been doing this job so long and I found myself on the outside looking in.

"The nurse, Cheryl, who looked after my dad was amazing. She made such a huge difference to all of us with the smallest of actions. She even went to my father's funeral, and six years later she still pops in to see my mum. She made us feel like we were the only family she was caring for.

"The vast majority of nurses provide excellent care like that yet it is still the most undervalued of all professions.

"I was thinking of writing another fiction book and I also mentioned to my agent about writing a book on nursing. She had a lightbulb moment and suggested I should do the two together. I scoured the libraries for books about nursing and found nothing.

"The only book I could find had been written by Florence Nightingale. Most books in the medical genre were written by doctors and the fact there were none on nurses also spurred me on.

"It made me feel there was an urgency about it, especially politically now with so many nurses leaving the profession. I decided to write it very quickly and I did it in five months - which nearly killed me."

Christie trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and worked for over 10 years as a children's nurse before she began writing.

Born in Stevenage in 1976, she was raised on a council estate by her father, who had a variety of different jobs, and her nursery nurse mother.

Now 41, she was 17 when she started her nursing training. She began writing when she was 27 but continued to nurse and study at the same time.

In 2007, she won the Malcolm Bradbury Bursary for a place on the renowned creative writing course at the University of East Anglia for a short story that became the basis of her debut novel, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away.

Up until two years ago she continued to work part-time as a nurse in London in two teaching hospitals while also writing her novels.

She has also been propelled into the role of nursing ambassador, sticking up for the profession she loves.

When she won her first literary award for her first novel she was bombarded with press interviews. Journalists were curious why she was continuing to nurse while obviously talented as a novelist.

She says she will never forget being asked why she wasn't giving up her day job. "One journalist in particular couldn't understand why I was still nursing and even suggested that writing was more important than nursing, saying not everyone can write but a lot of people can nurse. I disagree with that. I am more proud of being a nurse than a writer.

"I hope that my book helps give it a public platform and a voice. I would be delighted if it does."

Christie spent most of her career in paediatric intensive care, which makes for many emotional stories in her book.

There is one heartbreaking story of how she had to wash the hair of a small child who died in a house fire.

She says it is one of many incidents that will always stay with her. "It was horrific," she says. "I have been remembering that a lot because of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

"Things stay with you for ever. You carry the sadness. You see so much senseless suffering and some of it on a daily basis.

"You get to know people really well. The thing about children is that most of the time they do get better and go on to live full lives. Children have this enormous capacity to survive and that's what keeps you going and makes it bearable."

But it is not all heartbreak. In another snippet she talks about a child who has had a life-saving organ transplant who sits up in bed while she helps him write a letter to the mother of the boy who died in a car crash and donated his heart to him.

"Did your son like strawberry ice cream?" the boy writes.

On another shift, she recalls "the faces of half-a-dozen children", in wheelchairs, clutching drip-stands, watching and laughing as she herself is thrown into a bath full of mushroom soup on her last day as a nurse on Pumpkin ward.

You laugh with her too when a 92-year-old patient scolded a rather condescending consultant, reminding him that she wasn't "f*****g stupid".

Christie takes the reader on a journey from the neonatal unit, where premature babies fight for their lives, hovering at the very edge of survival, like tiny Emmanuel, wrapped up in a sandwich bag, to the cancer wards, where nurses administer chemotherapy and, long after the medicine stops working, something more important - which she learns to recognise when her own father is dying of cancer.

The emergency room is overcrowded as ever, with waves of alcohol and drug addicted patients as well as patients like Betty, a widow suffering chest pain, frail and alone. And the stories of the geriatric ward - Gladys and older patients like her - show the plight of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Through the smallest of actions, nursing provides vital care and kindness. All of us will experience illness in our lifetime, and we will all depend on the support and dignity that nurses offer us; yet the women and men at the vanguard of our health care remain unsung. Christie hopes her book with change that.

In her advocacy role she has been helping with new policy-making for nurses and has spoken out about NHS cuts.

She has also become a major part of the Nursing Now campaign which aims to raise the status and profile of nursing, working for positive change.

Run in collaboration with the World Health Organisation and International Council of Nurses, it seeks to empower nurses to take their place at the heart of tackling 21st Century health challenges.

The campaign launched globally in February of this year and will run until 2020.

It is right up Christie's street and with her book and her work with the campaign, she hopes that the crisis facing nursing in the UK can be given a chance to abate.

She adds: "I would really like people to celebrate nurses. Quite often what is written about nurses is negative. There are bad nurses, and there is no excuse for that, but the vast majority provide excellent care, day in and day out.

"The NHS has been chronically underfunded for eight years and the patient population is changing so quickly we can't keep up. Nurses are dealing with more patients who don't have a curable, treatable disease but have social care problems or mental health issues or housing issues.

"It is like a tangled ball and it is changing at a rapid rate. I know I was reluctant many times to drink water in case I needed a bathroom break and I know many nurses have been in that situation."

And she warns: "We should all be very afraid. Nurses are leaving the profession not just here but worldwide. If we don't have enough nurses our health care system will collapse.

"Each and every one of us will need nursing care eventually and we need to start appreciating and valuing their contribution."

The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson is published by Chatto & Windus, £14.99

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