Tuesday, 11 May 2021

The late shift

The late shift

SISTER Carol came on duty at 5pm on Christmas Eve. She’d been the ward sister at the special care baby unit for 12 years. She saw everything, knew everyone.

Leaving the winter chill and gloom outside, she swept along the corridors of the Royal Berkshire Hospital, made herself walk up the seven flights of stairs and swiped her way through the double doors into the waiting area.

Several rows of chairs faced the reception desk and a battered green tinsel Christmas tree sagged rather wearily in one corner.

In the other corner a devastated children’s play area was hosting a couple of youngsters, attempting to distract themselves while their respective parents were themselves distracted, sitting anxiously, watching the clock or their phones, or staring absently into space wondering how their life plan had unfolded to bring them here, to this place, at this time.

Down one side clear glass gave way on to a sky garden where, in the fading light, a single robin was trying and failing to cling to a bird feeder suspended from a bracket on the building.

It could not hold itself in place long enough to peck with any satisfaction and fluttered crazily about the feeder with a futile frustration.

At the end of the waiting area a second set of double doors opened into the ward itself. Nobody went through to where the babies were without a member of staff.

“Anything to hand on?” Carol asked the middle-aged man in a suit who was staring at a screen behind the desk.

“Oh, and Happy Christmas,” she added, although in reality she was simply trying to get the man’s attention.

Mr Peters was the consultant and he was about to go home to bed after a 16-hour shift. He was grey, like his suit, tired, and looked up at her with a rather vacant expression.

“Hello, Carol. No, nothing much to report. Number seven is picking up well, number two’s oxygen could probably come down a notch first thing tomorrow and keep your eye on number 10’s monitors. All the updates are done.”

He paused, as if there was something else.

“Yes?” she prompted.

“No, well, it’s nothing,” he said. “I’ve just got this feeling that I’ve lost something but I’ve checked everything. It’s all here.” He pointed at the screen.

“I’ve even checked my own stuff — I’ve got my keys, phone and wallet and I didn’t bring my laptop in today.”

Mr Peters looked up at her with a puzzled expression.

“You’re tired,” Carol surmised. “Go home, get some rest and enjoy your Christmas.”

Shrugging his shoulders, the consultant retrieved his coat from the lockers behind the desk and made for the doors.

“Goodnight then,” he said rather glumly.

Poor man, thought Carol. He’s lost himself. All this giving out to other people’s children and no family of his own to go home to.

She turned her gaze to the waiting room. A young couple, nervous, fretful, sat quietly by themselves.

A man on his own attempted to read a paper, while a woman in the row behind him furiously scowled at her phone, stabbing at it with nailed fingers that clacked and clicked in a way that reminded Carol of her mother’s typewriter. I hope she reads that again before she sends it, she thought.

Carol’s eyes turned to the two children attempting to find some joy in the play area.

The boy was about six, the girl perhaps 10. It wasn’t clear from the room whose they were, so Carol went over and crouched down beside them.

“Have you come to see a little baby?” she asked.

“Yes,” said the little boy, firmly. “I’ve got a little sister. She’s in there.” He pointed at the doors to the ward.

“She’s poorly,” he added, more quietly.

“Don’t worry, she’s going to be okay, ” replied Carol. “She just came a littler earlier than your mummy was expecting, so we have to keep her here for a few weeks, just to make sure she is going to grow up big and strong like you.

“This is a special place where we can give babies who come early all the extra help they need.” Carol smiled, trying her best to reassure.

The little boy looked at her warily, not sure if he was going to trust her.Carol sensed that she was being assessed. “Is that all right with you?” she asked.

“I think so,” the boy replied. “But when they said that about my grandad when he came here he didn’t get better. He got worse and went away. Your friends downstairs didn’t help him much at all.”

Carol understood then that the little chap was frightened his new sister was going to go away like his grandad had. She nodded to him but he had not finished.

“My dad was really upset when my Grandad went away and I don’t want him to be upset again if my sister has to go too,”

Carol looked at the man in the green jacket, somewhere in the sports pages.

“I think your daddy is very lucky to have a son just like you,” she said.

At this, the little boy ran over to his father and hugged him round the knees. The man put the paper down and picked up his son, wreathed in smiles.

Carol was about to stand up again when the little girl spoke, rather crossly.

“Are you going to go too?” Carol saw that there would be no escape for a moment. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Sister Carol. I have to look after all the nurses on this ward,and together we look after all the little babies who need extra care.”

“I’m Abigail,” said the girl. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Is that your daddy?” Carol enquired, indicating the man with the green jacket.

“No, he’s not,” said Abigail, abruptly. “I’ve lost my Daddy.”

Seeing Carol’s concerned expression, she went on.

“My mummy sent my daddy away last year. Then she took me to live with another man. She wants me to call him daddy but he’s not my daddy so I won’t.

“Now mummy has had another baby and says she is my sister, but I’m not sure. Anyway,” Abigail glared across at her mother, who was still engrossed in her phone. “I don’t care.”

Poor little thing, Carol thought. She feels abandoned by everyone.

“You never know,” she said. “Your new sister and you might be great friends. One day you might be able to introduce her to your real daddy, too, and then she’ll know a little bit more about your story.

“Your mum’s probably very worried about her just now but I don’t think that she has forgotten you. I won’t forget you.”

They were both somewhat alarmed as the doors to the corridor abruptly burst open and Mr Peters returned.

He was beaming and bearing a huge carrier bag. Carol hurried over to the desk.

“What is it?” she asked, anxiously. Was it the keys to the pharmaceuticals locker that he had lost?

“I’ve found it,” he replied triumphantly as he pulled out a brand new tinsel Christmas tree from the bag. “I got to my flat and found it right in the hall by the door,” he said. “I meant to bring it in yesterday but must have just walked right by it.

“You can get the duty nurses decorating it later once the visitors have gone.”

As he left, Mr Peters said over his shoulder: “And chuck that old thing out.”

There was something else in the bag — a small bird table of the kind that could be fixed to a wall and a bag of bird table food.

Sister Carol looked at the closing double doors and laughed out loud. She had not been the only one to notice the poor robin outside. Now he would have a Christmas dinner after all.

And Mr Peters had found his love and joy again.

A nurse was just bringing the anxious couple out of the ward and Carol said: “I’ll take the next one, Doris. Will you mind the desk, please?”

Carol went over to Abigail’s mother and said: “Would you like to come in to see your baby now? I’ve just met Abigail — we should take her in too.”

Abigail’s mother smiled weakly and got up stiffly.

“Your baby is in cot number seven,” said Carol. “We have to keep quiet and you can’t hold her just yet, I’m afraid. It will take your eyes a minute or two to get used to the darkness. We don’t have any lights on in there at night.”

Together, the three of them went through into the ward.

Carol still found it a wondrous place at night. In the darkness, when the babies were sleeping, it was like a warm cocoon with the 12 little cots arranged in three rows equally spaced across the room.

One wall was clear glass, giving a spectacular view high up across the twinkling lights of Reading. The only other lights were on the various monitors and technical units, blinking like small satellites around each sleeping star.

There was an astonishing feeling of peace and tranquillity right at the beginning of these fragile little lives held in so much tender love and care.

“Here she is,” said Carol, showing the mother her child. “We’re pleased with her. She’s making very good progress. You shouldn’t worry. Mr Peters has been with her all day.”

Abigail stood on tiptoe to see through the plastic of the incubator. Her eyes widened.

“She’s so tiny!” she exclaimed. “Look at her little hands and feet.”

The girls’ mother looked down at the floor.

“Don’t be sad,” Carol offered. “She’s going to be all right.”

“Can I talk to you, please?” the woman replied.

The pair of them moved a little towards the window, leaving Abigail marvelling at her sibling. They looked out at the view in silence for a while and Carol waited for the woman to speak.

“I’ve not told anyone in my family,” the woman said quietly. “I’ve got cancer. I was just getting back on my feet again after my divorce and then, well, there was the diagnosis.

“I felt like everything was gone, everything being taken away — husband, home, job, and now...” She looked back at the cot and Carol waited. The mother continued.

“But then, when I came in here with you just now and saw all these little ones in the darkness, each with a little light around them,

“I just knew that I was not alone. That even in unimaginable suffering we are still loved. That there are still people who care for us, people we don’t know but who just wish the best for us.

“Looking out over the lights of Reading reminded me of how big the world is with all its needs and problems but, even then, everyone’s little light joins up to make beautiful patterns across the world… and how God touches it all.”

Sister Carol had been warned before about speaking about God, which she couldn’t really help doing on occasion. There were, after all, times when only God would do.

“Yes,” she agreed, “he touches it all.”

The women looked out at the city lights together and Abigail’s mother went on.

“I just wanted you to know that, coming in here, I found a new resolve to get well, to not give up, and to go on living with whatever comes my way. I’ve got two lovely children and it’s Christmas — shouldn’t that be enough ?”

With that, she reached out a han, and gently touched one of the cots where a newborn baby slept, two toy woollen sheep left by visiting relatives hanging from one corner.

Carol watched as the mother went over and took Abigail’s hand and together mother and daughter stood in silence by their new arrival.

There was sometimes a wonder about her work which left her in awe of the greatness which is content to be held within a tiny child and of how much love is capable of being poured into so small a thing.

After a few more minutes, the three of them left the ward and its dark, warm, twinkly stillness.

In see-through cot number three, Jesus turned over in his sleep, his tiny wrinkled fingers beginning to move with the rhythm of the heartbeat inside.

Kevin G Davies

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