Last May I was sitting in a waiting room with several other anxious
people. We were all awaiting attention. A potentially life-changing
opinion from a professional concentrated my mind particularly
sharply. We have all been there: waiting silently, flicking through
mindless magazines, speculating on what the person opposite or next
to us is in for but all the time thinking about ourselves.
Now I was the vulnerable, anxious supplicant sitting in the breast
cancer clinic leafing idly through those magazines and affecting
nonchalance. I had found the lump a few weeks before; several
health professionals had already had a thorough prod and peer
around and sent off microscopic bits of me for investigation. I was
in the waiting room, awaiting test results and considered
assessment of my plight. As a social care professional for many
years, used to analysing problems and dishing out professional
opinion, this was serious boot-on-the-other-foot time.
The Macmillan nurse had such a look of sincere caring concern; I
wondered how she maintained this with everyone. I suspected bad
news when she invited me into a comfy, non-medical room with low
lighting, armchairs, pastel colours and flowers. When the doctor
delivered my diagnosis, with a steady gaze but blank expression, I
found myself linked into eye contact with the nurse. I asked her
questions because she looked as if she cared about service users.
The doctor’s blank look was entirely understandable. It was a safe
look when you have to daily deliver life-changing decisions.
The nurse offered to connect me with counselling and support
groups. There was even talk about aromatherapy. She really cared
that I knew what resources were available. Although I’m good at
recommending counselling for others, I declined the offer. I’ve
personally always found denial a helpful strategy in times of
trouble. Trouble? What trouble? The nurse maintained her caring
face yet didn’t press me. She gave me leaflets and again I wondered
how she kept this up.
After the diagnosis I had to wait a month for the operation, during
which I felt slightly disconnected from reality. The nurse reminded
me of her availability on the phone should I feel the need to talk.
The operation was not much fun but the lump was removed. But three
months later I was back in the waiting room again to discuss
exactly what post-operative treatment awaits me. They were running
unusually late. The caring faced nurse emerged and personally
apologised and reassured me. She actually seemed to care when
clients had to wait. Several troubled souls in the waiting room
were lightened by a touch of empathetic human contact and a kind
Walking down my local high street the other day an energetic young
man stopped me, saying I had the look of an angel of mercy. He was
trying to encourage me to sponsor a child in the third world. I
declined to agree to sponsorship, citing a bad case of compassion
fatigue. He understood. He had a caring face.
Jenny Kitto is a family court adviser for Cafcass and
associate Diploma in Social Work lecturer.