Best and worst decisions of my career

Heather Byrne is an intermediate care service team manager for Brighton & Hove Council

The best

In my long career as a social worker the best decision I ever made was as a newly qualified worker on my first case in the early 1980s. The service user was a very elderly woman who lived alone in a bungalow and had dementia. Before my involvement she had been in court for driving on the wrong side of the road, and the court referred her to my then patch team.

I had to decide how to approach her about her driving as she continued to do so very dangerously even though she was banned and had no ­insurance. She had avoided a prison sentence only because of her age and condition. I had horrible images of her running people over on the pavement, and felt I had to do something to avoid this.

I was told I could not remove the keys or arrange for a garage to disable the car, so I lifted the bonnet and pulled out the spark plugs. Despite this not being departmental policy, I thought it was the best, safest decision and I have never regretted it.

The woman did complain that the car was not working but soon forgot about it.

The worst

My worst work decision also regards this same client. The woman had a dog which had a history of escaping and charging into the road. Soon after my first visit, it was run over and killed.

The woman’s home was infested with fleas, which covered my legs each time I visited. The bed was full of fleas and the lady refused to let anyone change the bedding. As a result, both she and her visitors were severely bitten. Her mobility was poor so I decided to try to persuade her to accept some help and I would change the bed.

On my next visit I found some sheets and kept popping into the bedroom, gradually stripping the bed and remaking it. The sheets were in a bad state so I put them in the bath until I could arrange someone to collect. The service user had been a pattern designer in her time and had lucid moments. She quickly became suspicious of my comings and goings and asked me what I was doing and made me tell her. I left the house feeling pleased I had managed to achieve something practical.

When I returned to work the following week my manager was waiting for me. A distant cousin had visited and was concerned about the woman, who had been trying to bathe with sheets still heaped in the bath and the water was full of dead fleas. I was unaware she had relatives and knew then it had been a bad decision to take matters into my own hands. Trying to explain all this to my manager was not easy.

All these years later I realise I needed careful supervision with this case. I was keen and thought I knew what was best for my client. From this incident I have learned my lesson and never again took matters into my own hands, but rather consult others and follow the proper channels.

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This article is published in the 23 July 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “I was left with a flea in my ear”

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