Christie Watson’s “The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story” – book review

I was reading this book just before the pandemic hit. Ironically, I left it in the office in March. So I could only start reading it again now (October). As soon as I had it back, I devoured it. I couldn’t help myself. It’s very well written and on a subject that fascinates me.

The Language of Kindness is all about nursing. The author left school at sixteen to live with her then boyfriend and then trained as a nurse. She recounts her twenty years of experience – from her introduction to nursing at a mental health ward (she thought that might be easiest as she was originally afraid of blood) to her work in children’s ICUs.

The book describes what it takes mentally and physically to make a great nurse. Watson analyzes the the theoretical background of nursing – Florence Nightingale makes a frequent appearance as do modern nursing textbooks. But her true gift is that of the storyteller- Watson had already published two novels before the writing this book. She tells us about her patients and their stories. She also gives us the stories of those worked alongside her. One gets a sense of the bond that can form between a good nurse and their patient.

She describes Jo, a nurse who was taking care of Samuel, a prematurely born baby with chronic lung disease.

“His eyes followed her around the room, and he smiled at her as though he really meant it, even though he must have been in pain. Jo kept bubbles in her pocket and blew them gently above him, popping them one by one until Samuel kicked his legs. When a consultant gave bad news to his Mum, Jo was there, and stayed long after her shift to translate into plain language what he meant. (…) To give that much of oneself is dangerous. Grief can only be swallowed so many times before it damages. (…) Good nurses, though, will risk the danger in order to help.”

It is this goodness and kindness that radiates throughout the book that makes the stories of illness and grief bearable. Suffering is accompanied by compassion, as it should be. One can only hope that politicians read this book and grow to appreciate how difficult and necessary the work of nurses is.

Watson does not shy away from the problems that dog the public health services: shifts so long that there is no time to go to the loo, miserable pay, drug abuse by doctors and nurses, as well as the occasional nurse or consultant who is less than kind. Some are “patronizing, dismissive, unsympathetic and sometimes simply cruel to patients. There is a nurse I work with who, frankly, I wouldn’t let look after a hamster.”

But throughout this book, it is clear that, for Watson and others like her, it is kindness, compassion, and respect for other human beings which make life worth living.

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