Underneath their clothes

Seeing another human naked and vulnerable is usually something you do when you’re about to get personal and intimate with them. Perhaps at a beach, or if you’re feeling wild enough on holiday to fling your clothes aside and streak across a field of sheep, getting sheep poo stuck firmly between your toes as you go. But otherwise, no, nobody sees each other naked.


CT brain scan with right sided MCA infarct

Or so I thought. This week I have completed Nursing Week, and I’ve been thrown into personally caring for some incredibly vulnerable patients. And for me, one of the most startling experiences was becoming well acquainted with the fragility and vulnerability of the human body.

Us medical students wear scrubs, so we look like any of the other nurses or healthcare assistants. Almost as soon as I was on the ward, I found myself helping an elderly gentleman limp his way to the bathroom. His skin was hot and sweaty, his brow was furrowed with concentration from the effort of walking. He was clearly in pain. After an agonisingly slow journey to the toilet, he finally made it. Having made it this far, he then explained to me that he needed a cardboard tube to wee in. Confused, I held one of the cardboard tubes over his penis which he proceeded to wee into. He then slowly lowered himself backwards into the toilet, apologising profusely, began to have a poo.

This was the first time in my life physically helping somebody to the toilet. Honestly the only thing I felt whilst helping this gentleman was empathy and compassion, mostly for the fact he felt so guilty for taking my time so that he could do a poo. One of the most basic physiological requirements and somehow this poor gentleman had been made to feel as though he didn’t deserve it.

There is so much to do on the ward. The nurses and healthcare assistants and constantly being pushed to breaking point. It’s a physical job, and I get stuck in. By the end of the second day I find I’m completely used to the smells and the sights, they fall so far to the side of the main aim; to make the patient comfortable.

One of the hardest parts of the job I find is failing to communicate with patients. When your patient is clearly terrified and in pain, but also paralysed and unable to speak, how can I decipher their needs? I arrange the tiny, bony limbs of one patient as best I can into a comfortable position, open the blinds and arrange her so that she can see out to sea. But does she want to see the sea? What if she’s exhausted and wants nothing more than soft darkness so that she can sleep?

One patient in particular I find I click with. She’s brash, upfront, even aggressive. She’s hilarious. I take delight in helping her wash, she barks orders at me and then apologises and giggles. With the energy of someone so much younger and healthier than herself, I feel sure she’ll recover and return to her nursing home within the next week.

When I return to the ward on Monday I find that the energetic woman I made friends with has died suddenly over the weekend.

I knew that life-changing events and death occur in hospitals of course, but somehow I also didn’t fully comprehend it.

The next week, I change over from working with the nurses to working with the doctors. Part of me finds this immensely satisfying. Finally I can understand why the patient’s left arms is paralysed, why the patient can speak but not form words, or why the patient doesn’t comprehend where they are. Managing the patients from the doctor’s end involves a lot more thinking and looking at scans, but also a lot less time physically caring for the patient. After spending a week taking care of the patients personally, the most I might do for them now is hold a cup of water for them. I stand next to the doctors in my smart clothes (not scrubs anymore, now that I’m with the doctors) as they take notes, and see the nurses and healthcare assistants rushing by.

Nursing week was such an eye-opener for me. Swansea is the only Medical School that does it, yet I can’t help but feel that if every doctor knew more intimately the life of a nurse and of their own patient’s personal care, they would be much better doctors.

One thing I think we all secretly (or openly) know is that some doctors are arseholes. Pretty much every human has at least one story – when they visited the doctor extremely anxious with worrying symptoms only to have their symptoms dismissed and to be sent away feeling ignored. I feel at the very least a patient deserves to be listened to, be respected and to have their symptoms acknowledged.

I’ve had two emergency surgeries in my life, both from conditions that should have been picked up the first time I presented them to a doctor. I can’t help but feel that the fact I was a young woman complaining of abdominal pain might have something to do with it (are you pregnant? It’s probably your period pains.)

I am hopeful that the arsehole-doctor conundrum is being addressed. I feel that graduate entry medical schools are a good start, where the medical students have led a previous life to medicine and have perhaps been humbled a bit by living a bit longer. I’m not sure that going straight into medicine at 18 after A-levels is a good idea. One thing I’m sure of is that if doctors and nurses understood each other a bit better, we might have a much happier NHS.

And coming back to the original theme of this post (nudity) – as for dealing with my own naked body, after seeing so many humans battling every day to be able to move a limb, hold a pencil or swallow their food, I’m grateful every day for my own fairly functional fertile female ape of a vessel.


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