Hospice social worker Roy Nightingale tells Vern Pitt of his fight for Londoners whose lives have been blighted by deadly asbestos fibres
Last month, cancer patient James Wilson posthumously won a landmark court ruling that saw the hospice that cared for him awarded £10,000 from the company whose actions led to his death in 2007. However, the compensation claim would never have been brought but for his social worker, Roy Nightingale.
Wilson suffered from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. In the 1950s, he worked cutting asbestos at Deptford power station on the banks of the Thames in south east London. Many of his neighbours worked in docks importing the deadly material while their wives, daughters and girlfriends worked in the Cape Asbestos factory processing it. Many of the workers who contracted the disease, including Wilson, were cared for at St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney.
Nightingale has seen more than 100 such patients since he began working at the hospice in 1997, and has helped many to claim compensation from their employers for exposing them to asbestos.
His work with Wilson was typical. He provided emotional support, organised his care and helped him and his family to make a claim against his former employer. However, Nightingale says persuading Wilson to make a claim was not simple. “He walked out of the hospital after receiving his diagnosis and he wouldn’t say anything to anyone. He wasn’t going to make a claim or investigate what care or financing would be available to him.”
The importance of making a claim was demonstrated to Nightingale with the first case of mesothelioma that he dealt with. Having sat with the patient through long meetings with lawyers, he was later moved by the patient’s reaction to the £13,000 in compensation. “He said to me ‘at least my son hasn’t got to worry about the cost of my funeral now’,” recalls Nightingale.
For other clients a social worker’s involvement has a therapeutic quality. “Often they are people who wouldn’t normally take up opportunities for counselling in a formal sense,” he says. “But that is the opportunity [that’s there] if you can build a relationship with someone.” He says taking a stance for their welfare rights is often a good way to build clients’ trust.
Nightingale sees between 20 and 30 patients a year and the number is growing. The disease has a latency period of up to 50 years. With a complete asbestos ban only in place since 1999 – although its use had dwindled in preceding decades – the peak of cases is yet to be reached.
Most clients have some understanding of the prognosis for mesothelioma, which is often terminal and swift. One client told him: “As soon as they told me what was wrong I knew I was going to die. Two of my mates have already died of the same illness.”
Social workers best placed
Taking clients through the implications is something he believes social workers are better qualified to do than health professionals who often present patients with written information. “You have to be very brave to open up and read that,” he says, but a social worker can look at all aspects of a diagnosis and its consequences.
Other health professionals agree. In the course of his work Nightingale contacted a medical consultant who specialised in the disease in another part of the country. Her response read: “I’m amazed there is a social worker involved in that area of work because I’ve been crying out for something like that.”
He says working with the group has sharpened his assessment skills as well, aided by some detective work to establish what care the patients need, which involves piecing together personal histories.
In 2007, Nightingale helped established a multi-disciplinary group in east London with doctors, solicitors and nurse specialists, in order to quickly pick up cases. He says it has improved communication between teams and lets them deal with last-minute referrals so people can be moved into the hospice on the same day if need be.
He feels that people should receive the care and the compensation to which they are entitled and sees welfare rights as an often overlooked cornerstone of social work.
The defendant, power station construction company Foster Wheeler, is appealing against the compensation award. But, whether successful or not, Nightingale will be pressing ahead with his campaigning for the mesothelioma patients of east London.
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