Suitcase

The first half of my degree was split into seven placements, aimed to give us experience in various areas of nursing. We worked in medical, surgical, paediatric, maternity, learning disabilities, mental health and community settings. Paediatric and maternity were both very enjoyable, I got to watch deliveries - both natural and Caesarean - and spent a lot of time with midwives and health visitors visiting new mums and their babies at home or in clinics. I learnt how to feel for a baby's position and find its heartbeat and spent hours and hours weighing babies in clinic. Interestingly though, despite my earlier plan to study midwifery, this placement confirmed that, for now, I had made the right decision to train as a nurse.

What followed was far more difficult; I found the learning disabilities and mental health placements a tough challenge. I'll always have great respect for nurses and others who work in this field, including my cousin. Sophie, you are an angel and I don't know how you do it. For my learning disabilities placement I worked in a small residential home. It was in a lovely house near the sea and provided a cosy home for the residents, most of whom were very sweet and gentle-natured. I remember Stuart, a man in his early forties who had autism. He could hold an amazing amount of information in his mind and if you told him your date of birth he could instantly tell you what day of the week you were born on. According to the staff he had never given a wrong answer.

Then there was Roger. He was small - about 5'2" - and walked around in an aloof manner, usually with a vacant smile on his face. It amused me greatly that he always wore his watch halfway up his forearm instead of on his wrist and that he had the same girl's DMs that I had previously 'borrowed' from my sister. He seemed harmless enough but there was far more to him than met the eye. Unfortunately, I experienced his darker side. When I started the placement the manager asked if I was pregnant. I'd never been asked this in a job before and thought it was a strange question. The reason she'd asked was because pregnant women were not safe around Roger and had to keep their babies secret. He had a vile hatred of any woman who was pregnant and had been known to attack them. A few years earlier, the deputy manager had a visible baby bump and he had attempted to push her down the stairs. Thank God he didn't succeed because he was freakishly strong for his small size. After learning how violent he could be, I was pretty scared when he said he was going to call me 'Suitcase'. When I asked him why, he looked at me with his dark beady eyes and told me it was because I was small and he could easily fit me in one. He then said he would bury the suitcase, with me inside, in the garden and decorate the site with Christmas lights. I told the staff and they warned me never to be alone with him.

On one day trip we took the residents into town to get lunch. Roger said he needed the toilet and went into a public one. We waited for some time and then he emerged, completely covered - and I mean from shoulders down - in shit (as these stories go on you will learn that nursing involves a lot of it!). I was horrified to be standing in the High Street with him in this state. One of the senior carers went into the toilet to see what else he may have done and discovered that he'd also covered the whole cubicle in it. It was such an awful moment and we had to explain this disgusting situation to the poor janitor. Apparently Roger had a habit of doing this if he was annoyed or didn't get his way. Needless to say, lunch was cancelled and we went back to the home. I wanted to cry in the mini bus on the way back and sat as far away from him as I could. I have done a lot of dirty work in my time but this was the worst. Even though I hadn't touched him, I felt like burning the clothes I was in.

I was very relieved to leave that placement but there was no light relief as the next one was mental health. If I had thought learning disabilities was demanding, this one was even more so.

The setting alone was bleak and eerie. The mental health department was in an old hospital that had previously been closed for all other aspects of care, which made it feel desolate and cut off from the rest of the world. The wards were large and contained metal beds with a tiny cabinet next to each one and nothing else. It was cold and stark and reminded me of a WW2 film. I half expected the nurses to be wearing long-sleeved dresses and little white hats perched on top of their heads. There were no curtains around the showers or beds, as the rails posed a threat to any patient inclined to hang themselves. This meant there was absolutely no privacy. This alone would have affected my mental health if I was staying there. The placement was far less clinical than others and was a type of nursing I wasn't used to; I'd been providing physical care since I was sixteen. These patients didn't need help physically so I spent time talking, making beds or helping with drug rounds.

I met a young mother called Lauren, who had two daughters with the same names as my sisters. She rarely moved from her curled up position in an armchair and it broke my heart that she was too unwell to be with her girls. I once poured her tea in a china mug that was swiftly removed by another nurse, who explained that Lauren used to smash anything china or glass and start frantically self-harming with the shards. I was saddened and disturbed to see Sally, a girl from my school, only one year older than me, as an in-patient. She never spoke to me during my time on the ward. I remember Darren being admitted, a 19 year old boy who truly believed he was Michael Jackson. He wore a red shirt and black trousers and would set himself up in the centre of the lounge with his cassette player. When he was ready to perform he would produce a black trilby and one sparkly glove. I have to say his dancing was very impressive but it really freaked me out that he was so deluded. I found this place a real strain and actually considered quitting my degree because it made me feel so low. There seemed to be no hope or end in sight to some of the patient's situations. I used to be a weekend smoker but during my time at this hospital I smoked whenever I got the chance because it was the only way I could get a break and go outside.

The patient that intrigued me the most was Barry, an extremely well-dressed, slim, older man with a neat white moustache. He looked like he had walked straight out of the RAF and when I first met him I thought he might be a consultant. After speaking to many of the patients there, it had become apparent to me that they didn't always talk sense and weren't always to be believed. He seemed different though and was clearly very intelligent. His story was that his sister had framed him, accusing him of stealing family heirlooms. She had reported him to the police, lied about his condition and somehow convinced the relevant authorities that he was very unwell. She wanted Barry sectioned before their elderly mother died so that she had power of attorney and access to her bank accounts. I couldn't believe that this was possible, it was the sort of screwed up storyline you find in a thriller. Barry had infinite patience and never showed any anger relating to this situation. He was always completely co-operative with doctors and nurses. He was one of the very few patients allowed to leave the premises and spent every hour away sorting his affairs, meeting with various health professionals, council staff and solicitors. Before I left this placement he was discharged from the hospital as mentally fit with no medication. His sister never did get her hands on the money and the heirlooms he'd been accused of stealing were found in storage.

After a few weeks on this placement I had a car accident. I was a learner driver at the time so my mum was teaching me and we were taking my nine year old brother Greg to a fancy dress party. We now laugh about him being sat in the back dressed as Brains from Thunderbirds! A boy racer in a Sierra Cosworth (who we later discovered was uninsured) decided that my driving at 30mph in a residential street on a Saturday afternoon was infuriatingly slow. His clever solution was to attempt to overtake me by driving along the pavement on my left side at what was later estimated by police as 50mph. He lost control and smashed into the front left side of my beloved Mini Chelsea sending us into a spin. The car was completely written off but, thankfully, although we were shocked, we were not badly injured. It was such a loud smash that people came out of their houses to see what had happened and a kind elderly couple took us in and made us a cup of tea. I don't know why but I started crying, telling them all about how awful I was finding the mental health part of my training and that I was thinking of leaving my degree. They just listened and smiled, probably wondering who this emotional wreck was in front of them. Shock does funny things to people I guess. I was signed off with whiplash for the rest of the placement which was a strange blessing in disguise. I'd lost my first car but we were all fine and I didn't have to return to the mental hospital again. I will always feel bad that Greg was involved in a crash at such a young age. And sad that I never got him to his party.

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