The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson

by Edith Cody-Rice

Once upon a time when the earth was cooling, I was a nurse. That was back in the 60’s and early 70’s when bedside nursing was still largely carried out by nurses, not nursing assistants. Trained at the University of Toronto, I worked in several of t he downtown Toronto active t treatment hospitals. Sometimes, after a 30 year career as a lawyer (which I enjoyed), I do wonder why I ever left nursing.  It is for this reason I was drawn to this book about nursing, a biography of a nurse rather than a technical description of the job. The title, The Language of Kindness, says it all: the essential quality of a good nurse is kindness, competence being a given.

Christie Watson is a British nurse and award-winning novelist. She was a nurse for many years before retiring to become a full-time writer. This book is the story of her experience nursing in a large London teaching hospital. It has been a huge hit in Britain, where it was chosen as Radio 4’s Book of the Week, and it gives nursing the voice and attention it deserves. Ms. Watson has declared, and I think it is accurate, that nursing is the most undervalued of all professions. A good nurse is a gift and often has much more to do with a patient’s recovery than the doctor whom the patient sees only briefly. The day to day care that leads to health is the province of the nurse.

Although sometimes a bit technical for the lay reader, Ms. Watson writes compellingly and vividly about life in the hospital and the struggles that juggling personal and professional life entail. She worked with children, adults, the elderly and the mentally ill at various times in her career, but found her real home in intensive care, a high-pressure specialty. Towards the end of her career she was a member of the resuscitation team. She recounts experiences not only of herself, but of her patients and their families,

Ms. Watson rather laments the sidelining of trained nurses into administration of various kinds. She states:

There are nurse-led clinics, and nurse practitioners caring for adult patients needing transfers on ECMO. Nurses are diagnosing, treating, prescribing, leading cardiac-arrest teams and teaching and assisting consultants on advanced life support courses. And they are paid as nurses. But the real expense comes in the tasks at the heart of nursing: changing beds, taking observations, helping a person drink their tea or use the toilet or listening to their stories. There is a danger of forgetting what nursing is, what it means: the importance of providing care. The jobs that a nurse would traditionally do are often passed on to healthcare assistants.

The point here? That nurses are doing jobs once done by doctors although they are not properly compensated for them. As a result, they are no longer doing the compassionate tasks traditionally performed by nurses.  This is as true of Canada as of Britain.

Christie Watson is very well read and has studied the history and philosophy of nursing. She quotes Florence Nightingale, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Jalaluddin Rumi, Simone de Beauvoir, Anne Frank, Sigmund Freud and Emmanuel Kant, among others, focusing on what it means to be human and the value of dignity.

In recounting caring for a dementia patient who defecated in bed and was deeply embarrassed, she writes:

Promoting dignity in the face of illness is one of the best gifts a nurse can give.

If you want to know about nursing, read this book. Nursing is a vital profession and as she stated in an interview, all of us will at one time or another be either nursing or nursed.

This is not to say all nurses are kind; sometimes the constant beat of illness and tragedy and pressure of constant emergencies dulls one’s senses, but the ideal is kindness, compassion and the maintenance of dignity in the face of our messy humanity. Compassion and kindness are the essence of nursing more than of any other profession.