A Proper Job
I’m in the pub, the evening before I leave.
“It’s like IT support. In hospitals.”
“Do you know anything about computers?”
“Not really, but you just need to know the software they’re introducing. Basically you spend a few weeks there, helping anyone that needs help. So I’ll be based in Bradford Royal Infirmary — ”
“Bradford?” He frowns.
A look of legitimate concern. “Don’t talk to anyone there. You’re like, the poshest out of all of us. They’ll hate you.”
I am not sure what to make of this.
In the lobby of the Ibis Budget Bradford Hotel. Yes, the word “budget” is really in the title. I’m sharing an Indian takeaway with four or five others. It feels like I’ve known them much longer than a few hours.
We’re half-watching the X-Factor on the TV screen. A Nigerian girl is calmly explaining why she likes Trump.
“He at least gets things done. He says what he is going to do, and then he does it. That’s the problem with politicians these days: no action. In Ghana, the leader is hated because of his policies, but he has at least instigated real change. Trump will bring real change.”
The way her accent enunciates is really soothing to listen to; it’s just a shame she’s talking such absolute bollocks. Righteous rage overwhelming social anxiety, I jump in with a miniature rant, which can be summed up by something like: “fuck off.”
The rant gets a good reception from the others at the table, particularly from one guy sat in the corner, who I’ve already written off as far too cool for me. He actually leans over and shakes my hand, and says “I like you.”
I brush it off: “stop it, I’ll start blushing.”
And the conversation moves on: the Nigerian girl has plenty more to say. But I zone out, thinking: who says that they like someone they’ve just met? Who can just say that?
I had imagined the job would entail running all over a hospital, but on my first day I’m given a sheet which says “Ward 27”, and told that I’ll be stationed there for the duration of the contract. I’m also given a bright yellow t-shirt, XXL size. I’m supposed to wear the shirt at all times, but I decide I’d rather not make a first impression as some kind of giant, fluorescent, deflating balloon animal, so I stow it in my bag for now.
I find my way to Ward 27 easily enough, which is disappointing, because I was hoping the journey would give me some time to mentally psyche myself up. I know that the next few hours are crucial: it won’t take long for the ward to decide whether I’m useful or not. With this in mind, and factoring in the four hours sleep and lack of breakfast, I’m not feeling good as I walk through the double doors.
It’s spacious, and quieter than I thought it’d be. Then there’s a loud sigh, and a woman marches around the corner and towards me. She has limp red hair, bags under her eyes, and “STRESS” written in the lines of her forehead.
I deliver the line I’ve been rehearsing under my breath. “Hi, I’m Ben, I’m the trainer for — ”
“ — Excellent.” she cuts me off brusquely. “Come on.”
Hospital is not a place for pleasantries. Later I learn that this is Carol, head Nurse and essentially the boss around here. She shows me around at top speed, all the while speaking in a stream of medical jargon. “This is the Cath Lab, where we do the cardiorespiratory angioplasty pre-assessments on the outpatients — we had five booked this morning, but we’ve had to cut down because the phlebotomy equipment still hasn’t arrived.”
Meanwhile, inside my brain:
You get used to the medical-speak in time, but it is genuinely another language. On the weekend I went to a party full of Italians, and that was much easier.
The tour ends in the kitchen, where I’m offered tea and my day improves dramatically. A few of the nurses have arrived, hastily scoffing cereal and nattering. They are mixed in terms of age and background, but everyone’s cheerful and friendly. This seems to be the standard up north, but for a southener this counts as unspeakable kindness, and soon I’m feeling less out of place.
I end up talking about my plans to live in China, which happens whenever I talk to anyone for longer than ten minutes. There’s a collective “oooh”, and in that moment, I’m reminded of the chickens from Chicken Run. And once this association is made, there’s no going back.
The worst part of the job is that we’re fundamentally pretty useless, even if we know our stuff. About half of the time, all we can do is make sure that the staff refer the problem to the correct helpdesk. And if you thought there’d be just one helpdesk, well, you’re in for a treat. Most of the helpdesks don’t pick up the phone when you call. The ones that do answer tend to spend ten minutes or so confirming your name. Once they’ve listened carefully to your problem, they thank you for your time, give you a reference number, and then chuck the problem into a large, bottomless well.
There are also three management teams. Lowest is bronze management, who send a minion around every now and then to make sure nothing is being solved. Silver management are a level higher, for when you have a particularly tenacious problem which you want to not be solved. And Gold Management are a detached, semi-mythical SPECTRE-like organization with such limitless power that solving the problems of mere mortals is beneath them.
So if you have a problem, the whole process works a bit like this:
David Foster Wallace described corporations as “a fugue of evaded responsibility”, and he was right. Issues get bounced around a complex hierarchy until they’re eventually lost forever. If DFW is a bit pretentious for you, one of Malcolm Tucker’s phrases also applies:
This was essentially the message received. The implication was clear: you’re on your own.
I’ve been stressed before. I’ve worked hard before. I’ve felt out of my depth before. But never for twelve hours straight.
My first day is half over, and I’m in Costa, staring blankly out of the window. So far I haven’t made any mistakes, but everything has gone wrong. Endless problems, a hundred miniature annoyances. When I left her, Carol was one error message away from suicide. I try and evaluate the day so far, but my mind’s lost in fog and I can’t string any thoughts together.
Six more hours. I look down at my empty sandwich wrapper, and can’t remember eating it.
The day didn’t get any easier.
It’s six o’clock, and the clinic is usually closing up by now. But there are still six patients who need to be discharged, using a process which none of the nurses know. Carol’s gone full manic-depressive by this point, alternating between fits of hair-tearing frustration and calm, cheery acceptance of her fate.
Then, just as we begin to discharge patients, the main computer shuts down.
“It won’t even turn on now!” she shouts as she marches through the ward. “I think I might slit me wrists if this keeps up, hahah! Y’allright, love?” she says as she passes a patient, who stares after her, terror-stricken.
From the brief: You might find that a lot of the older staff are resistant to the tech takeover, so be prepared and stay patient.
Margaret is sixty-something, and lovely. She is this chicken:
…right down to the accent and the take-no-shit attitude.
But Margaret does not want to learn IT. She refuses to even touch a computer.
“I went to the nurses’ computer training, like we had to. And I told the instructor, I’m not using one. I don’t need to, I don’t want to. I asked him, how do they expect our generation to understand all this? I’ve never owned a computer. And when I told him that, do you know what he said? He said I needed to buy one.”
Margaret tells me this in scandalized tones, as if the instructor had whipped his dick out. I think above all she’d felt patronised: once you’ve patronized someone, you’re not gonna be teaching them anything. But the fact remains that Margaret can’t actually do her job without a computer — I’m not sure how she’s managed to stay employed this long while doing everything on paper. So I must try to succeed where the instructor failed.
It takes a few days to coerce her in front of a computer. (Luckily the ward computers are portable, so I can chase her around with it.) Eventually we grab a quiet half hour, where I talk her through the basics. She listens attentively and without complaint. When I finish, she says: “right. Well I didn’t get a word of that, so you’ll need to write it down.”
So I jot down the procedure on a piece of yellow paper. Little did I know that this would be merely chapter 1 in a novel of Russian proportions.
I have a girl colleague with a boy’s name. She is immediately familiar, unfailingly intense.
“Yeah, I do slam poetry. I can recite it if you’d like.”
“I started a school in Morocco.”
“I’m thinking of rollerblading to the hospital. I once went from London to Brighton on rollerblades.”
I don’t know if she’s joking or not. I always thought of rollerblading as an urban myth — people don’t actually do it.
Sometimes you meet people who seem to live on a different setting to everyone else. Like they found the cheat code for an interesting life, something you missed somewhere along the way.
As I walk in on Friday, the waiting area is full. I avoid the temptation to turn around and walk out again.
At least the patients are interesting. One is 92, with a Polish name: an escapee from the Nazis? I decide that it’s inappropriate to ask.
Another elderly gentlemen seems completely ordinary, if not for the fact that every now and then he starts speaking. Loudly and clearly, to no one in particular, and making no sense at all.
I show him in — since the ward’s receptionist was made redundant due to NHS cutbacks, I’ve taken on some of their duties.
“The nurses are ready for you now.” I say.
“My second marriage, that is.” He says.
I’m blue-screening again: I can’t fathom this non-sequitur. But he gets up and follows me in nonetheless.
“Oh, is that Mr Crowdy?” asks Penny. “Pop him in Bed 4.”
Mr Crowdy smiles at Penny as we pass her. If you asked a teenage boy to picture a nurse, that nurse would look something like Penny. Once he’s settled in, Penny goes about the blood tests, the two of them chatting amicably. The conversation is exceptionally normal, and I wonder if I’d misheard him earlier. But then Penny asks him if he’s had an FBC test before, and he replies: “so I stole his coat.”
Penny looks at me in ultimate uncomprehension: I have to turn away to keep a straight face. Then I notice Nadia waving at me from the far end of the ward.
I head over. Nadia’s barely five foot tall, hair hidden in a headscarf which matches her scrubs.
“Ben. Slight problem. I can’t find this patient. It’s like they’re not on the system at all.”
We keep having these problems, which the IT helpdesk have helpfully termed “migration issues”. What this means is that we have to search the various waiting lists and NHS databases to unearth a patient, so that we can admit them and enter their details. Although the problems aren’t going away, at least by now I know where to look. Except this time, they aren’t there.
“Yeah, I tried the inpatient list.” Nadia bites her lip.
“I’ll just try the Ward list, then.” I suggest. “At least that’ll give us an idea of where they are.”
But there’s nothing. “They’re not here at all. It’s like they’re a ghost.”
“Have you tried the inpatient list?” Penny calls over.
Then, Carol’s voice. “Ben, have you got a moment?”
I do not have a moment. IT issues seem to come in batches: as soon as there’s one, a wave of others mount up behind it.
“You’ll need to hurry, if you want to catch the five past.” says Mr Crowdy.
Now Margaret joins the group stood around me. Nurses seem to come in batches too. “What’s the problem now?” she asks.
“This patient just isn’t on the system.” I say.
“He has to be.” says Nadia. “He came in for an appointment. He’s in that bed over there.” She nods to a moustached man reading a book, unaware that he doesn’t exist.
“Bloody useless.” Margaret grumbles. “There used to just be a catalogue, you could find anyone.”
“But there still is.” says Carol. She jogs down to reception, and opens a filing cabinet. This is the filing cabinet that, in theory, computers are supposed to have replaced. After a minute or so, she draws out the right file, and comes trotting back. “Try his old NHS number.”
I search for the number: this should work. And, finally, his name appears. But when I click on him, an error message pops up.
Patient has been marked as deceased. Patient cannot be edited.
“Deceased?!” says Nadia.
Carol shushes her, and we all glance at the moustached man. Fortunately he’s too engrossed in his book to have heard.
“He doesn’t look very dead to me.” remarks Margaret.
Femi works in the ward next to mine. To be honest, “works” is a strong word, but I like the guy. He’s a man of few words, but we get on well, and he has a unique greeting for me:
“It’s all about the Benjamins.”
One lunchtime I brought a pack of five doughnuts back to the ward. The nurses often bring some cake or biscuits to work, and have twice given me a full meal, so I figure it’s about time to give back.
Femi’s in the reception when I get there.
“I’ve got doughnuts. Want one?”
I take one out and then pass him the bag. Then I go into the kitchen and make us both a cup of tea. When I get back, there’s one doughnut remaining.
I am fucking speechless. Leaving aside the obvious atrocious manners, I can’t believe that anyone could eat three doughnuts that quickly. I feel like throwing the cup of tea I’ve just made him in his face.
I didn’t say anything, in the end. Maybe it was purely surprise which shut me up. Maybe it was the fact that Femi is thirty-six, and I don’t feel like I have the authority to kick off at someone fifteen years older than me. So I just took the bag from him, and looked at the lonely doughnut inside. Well, I can’t offer the other nurses just one doughnut. And it sure as fuck isn’t being eaten by Femi. So I had it. I wasn’t remotely hungry.
Take one ward full of young female nurses. Add a group of patients who are mostly old men. The result? Inevitably, bad flirting.
Penny is a master of small talk, which means she often gets the worst of it. She’s discovered the golden rule: ask someone about their children, and you’ve got five minutes of conversation, guaranteed.
She’s nursing a burly gentlemen, white hair, tattoos on thick forearms.
“Aye, I’ve got a few kids.” he tells her. “Few grandkids, too. Seven at last count.”
“Ah, lovely. More on the way?”
“Sooner or later. I bet you’re looking forward to them popping out a few grandkids.”
Penny’s facing me at this point, so I can see her reaction. One of the few times I’ve literally choked on tea.
“I’m thirty-five.” she says pointedly.
Elsewhere, Nadia is struggling to attend to a patient who insists on referencing their shared Indian culture.
“Where did you move from?”
“Uh, Leeds. It wasn’t much of a move.”
“Ah, but where did your parents move from? You look Bengali.”
“My parents came from Egypt.”
Unfortunately, this is one of the patients who we’re struggling to find, meaning the small talk window is wider than ever. As I’m searching, Nadia comes over to the computer.
“He won’t stop. I’m Indian, whether I like it or not.”
“Maybe do a pharaoh-dance in front of him, convince him you’re Egyptian. Or write his papers in hieroglyphics.”
Nadia doesn’t find this very funny. The smile slides off my face.
“I’ll keep looking for him.”
“Yeah,” she says, and trots back over.
“Sorry you’ve had to wait,” says Nadia. “We’re getting there slowly.”
He grins. “Like an Indian train.”
It’s my last day, and I’ve since decided that this job is fucking great. The past few days have been wrought with the same old problems, but at least we know how to solve them.
Somehow I’ve managed to come out of this with the favour of the nurses, who have let me choose a free lunch from the food in the fridge. They’re kind, and relentlessly hardworking, and they’ve never taken their frustration out on me. If you’ve ever worked in retail or delivery, you’ll know how rare this is.
Best of all, this Friday afternoon we only have to see one patient. I’m positioned at the reception desk to greet him when he arrives. I’ve already dug him out of the catalogue, so with any luck the rest of the day will be smooth sailing.
A guy walks into the ward, but it’s not the patient. He’s a colleague of mine: I know his face, but I’ve never spoken to him.
“Are you the guy that makes tea?”
Yes I fucking am. “Sure. You want one?”
“Yeah, desperate for one. It’s been a long day.”
I make him his tea, and he ends up staying for his whole lunch break. For the past weeks, as I’ve been swanning around in my quiet outpatient ward, he’s been working in ICU — Intensive Care.
“Yeah, you see it all. I saw two people die this morning. I’ve had to discharge loads to the mortuary. Yesterday there was a guy sicking blood up everywhere. Last week, apparently they had to use the defribrillators on a woman while she was still in the hallway, they didn’t think she’d make it to the ward. And imagine trying to enter all these details onto the system while that kinda shit’s happening right next to you.”
I barely know what to say. It sounds like hell. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have been able to do this job if I’d been put there. We’re assigned to wards randomly, so it could’ve easily been me in ICU. Dumb luck put me here, with friendly nurses and my own kitchen. It’s ridiculous that this guy is paid the exact same wage as me, and I feel guilty for sitting here eating my sandwich, as the carnage of the hospital rages on around me.
The door opens at the end of the corridor — looks like it’s our patient.
“I should get back, anyway.” says ICU guy. “See you later, man.”
I get up to greet the patient. These receptionist duties have been second nature for a while now, but I’ve been thrown off balance by this conversation, and I’m out of place again.
There’s a dispenser next to the desk, which squirts out alcohol gel. You’re supposed to use it after you’ve eaten, or if you’ve sneezed or coughed. The gel rubs in immediately, and kills any germs. I’ve got into the habit of using it whenever I pass by.
But my head’s out of synch and I’m focusing on the patient, so instead of using the gel dispenser, I use the soap dispenser next to it. It ejects a sizeable dollop of foamy soap into my hands, which does not rub in immediately.
So as I try to say, “Hi, are you Mr Jacobs? The nurses are waiting for you, it’s just this way,” I continue to rub the soap into such a thick lather that it starts dripping from my hands onto the floor.
It’s only now that I realise what I’ve done. Together, me and Mr Jacobs stare at my hands. Mr Jacobs gives me a concerned look. He’s probably wondering if I’m a patient too.
I show him in, then head back to the kitchen, as the soap begins to run down my arms. I’m not quite ready for this adult world yet.
Any names and places have been changed, so if you’re thinking of using this to get me fired, think again, fucker.