Thursday, 7 February 2013

More Than a Job Part 3 - Living the Dream



I was destined to work at Birmingham Accident Hospital. Fate took a look at me, and took a look at that little gem tucked away on Bath Row, and she knew, she just KNEW that we were meant to be together. Carlsberg doesn't do hospitals, but if it did.... If the Accident Hospital were a man, I would have married it and lived happily ever after, shagging its brains out nightly. I make no bones about it - this is the alpha and the omega of hospitals, there never has and never will be a hospital that can touch it in my eyes.

From the minute I knew I wanted to do physio permanently, I was plotting my escape back up the M6 and into the welcoming arms of the Acci. My first attempt was a dismal failure. A senior II post came up that was rotational through the trauma and orthopaedic hospitals - and one of the 6 month rotations was the the Acci. I went, I interviewed, but inexplicably (oh, ok, all too obviously due to someone being better than me) didn't get the job. I was gutted, especially as my housemate had done my tarot cards and been convinced I was leaving Wales for my dream job in the next few months. She did them again - 'no, you're definitely going, DEFINITELY.'

A month later, the Birmingham Orthopaedic Physio Big Boss phoned me to say that a job had come up and did I want it, 'but I have to warn you it isn't rotational through the hospitals, it's permanent at the Accident Hospital.' Luckily she wasn't in the room, cos her hand really wouldn't have been safe from being bitten off.

The Acci never was for everyone. Most people didn't like it for the same reasons I loved it. It was fast-moving, chaotic, no time to think, SUCH hard work - but SO interesting, so enthralling, what you were doing was the ultimate in worthwhile. Life shrank, because the Accident Hospital was work and play - it was a small hospital, we all were so bound together that we were friends instead of just colleagues, there were loads of parties in the Doctors' mess and the Nurses' Home, we'd go on hospital trips to Alton Towers, Snowdon, Carding Mill Valley. You either got it or you didn't. You either found it confusing, unstructured and frightening, or you loved the excitement and the challenge and the thrill.

I began in February 1988, and at the start I struggled, horribly, and it was especially difficult because another lassie began a couple of weeks or so after me, and she was so much better than I was. The tables had turned form Wales, and now I was the rubbish newbie. Oh, I still loved it, loved the day-to-day work, loved what I was doing: but I couldn't do it fast enough or to a high enough standard. It didn't help that two of the senior staff sort of bullied me - would follow me around criticising everything I did (and not in a constructive manner) or check up on me when I wasn't there, then accuse me of not doing things I had done, or doing things I hadn't done!

Luckily, my immediate senior was really supportive, and with her help I got through it. It didn't really help that at this time I was at a bad place in myself, on a majorly self-destructive downer - drinking too much, too often, being incredibly promiscuous, and generally seeing just how far one person could go without having a nervous breakdown or dying. Of course, I was majorly in denial about this, and remember having a right hump when on a night out someone I actually really liked goes, 'hey, Karen, I've put your song on' and it was this:


"Here you go, way too fast
Don't slow down you're gonna crash.....
.......So what do you want from me?
Got no cure for misery
And if I go around with you
You know that I'll get messed up too"

To be fair, this wasn't anywhere near as mortifying as the time a sort-of-boyfriend Acci doctor requested a DJ dedicate Pet Shop Boys 'Domino Dancing' to me, but it was along the same upsetting lines.  

But things were changing. The two pseudo-bullies left, I found my feet, and I met the nice boy M_  that I horribly cheated on . I was calming down, becoming more focussed on work, and becoming a valued member of the physio department - I was helping other people now rather than the other way around. In 1990 I became the Burns Unit Senior I - and that was where my life became about my work. I wanted to be the best Burns physio ever. I made a comprehensive pack which educated the students on placement in little sections over their three weeks with us. I read everything there was to read on the treatment of burns. I went to watch skin grafts, I went to dressing changes, I went on every ward round and answered questions the junior doctors couldn't answer (and the consultants shamelessly used this as a means to belittle them - basically saying 'oh look, even the physio knows and you don't'). I loved that job. I loved being a senior, I loved setting an example. If switchboard couldn't contact the on-call physio, they contacted me because they knew I wouldn't moan or bitch, I'd just come on in. I loved it! It felt like being on ER!

However, two years in, I knew I was feeling a bit restless. Burns physiotherapy is really quite routine - you do the same things day in, day out. The skill was in motivating people who were in pain and feeling really ill, to do exercises that hurt, or made them feel even more ill. And also in dealing with the sort of people who get burned.

Ordinary people rarely get serious burns. There would be the odd one-off accident, the rare work accident or the very occasional fireman who would get burned; but usually the serious burns, the ones who ended up as in-patients, were people with drug and/or alcohol problems, people who were homeless (you'd be surprised how many were set alight by stupid idiot yobs) or people with serious mental illnesses. This was the challenge, and this became the part of the job I liked the most - the learning how to relate to people that other people found it really hard to deal with. I was always in love with the Accident Hospital; and it was at the Accident Hospital that I began to learn to love my patients.

I remember the day I knew it was time to move on. I was in theatre and the consultant asked one of the junior doctors to correctly adjust the dermatome for harvesting the skin graft. I could see he was baffled, so I whispered, 'hold it up to the light and adjust it so you can just see a sliver of light.' I realised there was nothing left to learn. I'm pretty sure I could have done a skin graft myself - I certainly could tell at dressing changes if they had taken and I was starting to be able to recognise the different smells of different infections. Maggots under dressings in summer no longer made my skin crawl. It was time for new challenges.

Even so, I probably would never have left if the decision hadn't been made to close the Accident Hospital and move the staff first to the General and eventually to the Queen Elizabeth. We fought to stop it, but once it was confirmed and bound to happen, I couldn't stay. Seeing the closure of the Acci would have been like watching the death of a beloved relative. I was the first rat to desert.

I cried on my last day. Walking away, knowing I'd never again walk through those corridors in the still of night, never again feel the heart acceleration and the adrenalin rush that a big burn or a major trauma would bring, would never, ever be phoned again in the middle of the night to come in and help save a life.... I cried. I loved the building, I loved the atmosphere, and I loved the people, the teams, in it. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can smell the physio gym, the changing rooms, the oh-so-distinctive Burns Unit smell that would linger in your nose even when you were long gone from the Unit. I regularly dream I am back there, and I'm sad when I wake up.

Those five years, I lived the dream. I just wish I had been the physio and the person I am now, I'd have been able to give so much more. The Accident Hospital showed me my future, although that future wasn't going to be trauma, or burns.......


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