This weekend was my first weekend working as a District Nurse on my own. This means it was just me covering our area, but I could also have been called on to work anywhere around the region to support the other District Nursing Teams. I was pretty nervous but it went okay. It was a glorious weekend here and I was glad that I was out and about in my car, and not on a stuffy ward in the hospital. I don’t know if I can put it down to the sunshine but it seemed to be a weekend of sharing memories with my patients. Perhaps it was hearing the sounds of children playing in the street or neighbours in their gardens that triggered it. I don’t know.
There were stories of previous homes, loved and left, often reluctantly. There were stories of parenting capers in the days when children were piled up high on top of the picnic basket in the back of the car, not a seatbelt in sight! But it was gardens that seemed to come to the fore this weekend. In one house I caught the end of the Archers Omnibus and afterwards it was a repeat of Desert Island Discs featuring the Head of the RHS, Sue Biggs. She talked about how research has shown that just two hours in a garden or green space has a positive effect on our health and wellbeing. Her words fell like dumbbells in the silent room where my patient lay bedbound, looking out of his cottage window at his overgrown garden, which had once been his pride and joy. And of course, I could be talking about any number of bed bound patients across our patch.
If housebound patients have thoughtful families then gardens are grassed over and mowed regularly by a gardener, or are covered in gravel. Many families live far away from their elderly or sick relatives, or they have busy lives with children and work, and it is all they can do to keep on top of the inside of their relative’s house, never mind the garden. Half the time I have to stop myself from volunteering to do every garden on the caseload! Some local League of Friends charities do provide gardening volunteers but mostly it is to cut the lawn and trim the hedges. No one has time to restore an old-fashioned cottage garden. But for other patients a kind neighbour might tend pots on their windowsill or bring them bunches of sweetpeas from their own garden. In those homes there is always conversation about how the flowers are doing, and the wonderful colours, and memories of former days of gardening glory.
On Sunday, after work, I went and sat in a chair in my own garden. It has always taken me time to process a day of nursing. I’m not somebody who can walk out of the door and forget about it. In the past, I’ve been unable to get any separation at all, and have worried and dreamt of my patients, especially if I were returning early the next morning. But I have learnt to slowly put my patients away in a box in my mind (a lovely comfortable one with sheepskin lining), until I get back to work again, but it still takes me time. I can’t help but wince at comments I have made with all best intentions, but when I reflect, I realise they may have sounded patronising or naive to a ninety-six year old whose life experience I can barely begin to grasp. But still, I put these things away, and promise each patient I will do better next time.
Yesterday evening, I put my head back and watched the swifts joy-riding the sky. I breathed in the scents of my own garden, letting it restore me just as Sue Biggs had described. And then, with wild shouts, three sun-kissed, curly-haired children came tumbling out of the house to greet me. I tucked my last patient, the gentleman with the overgrown garden, into my box, wishing with all my heart that I could restore his garden and by proxy, him too, but knowing that my life is full and I can do no more than I already do. So I sent up a small prayer for a miracle for him and then hugged my children very hard, remembering how another elderly gentleman had taken my hand very gently in his own this weekend, and said, “Treasure every minute because you just don’t know what is around the corner.”
*Please note, I have changed details about my patients in order to protect their confidentiality.