Hazel McHaffie


Lessons from the receiving end

You’ve probably all read about the young video fashion blogger, Zoella, whose book, Girls Online, was a runaway best seller last month. And the subsequent furore over the revelation that she used a ghost-writer. Hmmm. Well, I want to assure you that this blog post has actually been my own unaided work in spite of the traumas of the week. Apologies for the absence of illustration but I’ve been rather otherwise occupied.

Three days ago I was admitted to hospital as an emergency and kept in; I’ve just been discharged this afternoon. With a lot of time on my hands and being on the receiving, not giving, end I had plenty of leisure to analyse what makes for the kind of caring that I would rate as good.

thinking Things it is not: steaming through tasks to meet targets without a care for the person in the bed; a patronising or condescending attitude; crashing metal bin lids all night long; omitting smiles and random acts of kindness from the care plan; leaving the patient feeling they are an unwelcome intrusion; loud conversations between staff at all hours of the night.

thinkingThings it is: human kindness in word and demeanour; showing the utmost respect for even the most trying of patients; adding a smile to the mix; according the patient the benefit of some understanding of their condition; a word of true sympathy for those in pain or unable to sleep. How I wish I’d appreciated these things so clearly when I was on the vertical, clothed end of the partnership!

From the horizontal position I saw evidence of the excellent and the not so shining. I loved the consultant who sat at eye level with her patients and exuded warmth and bonhomie wherever she went. I admired the skill of the expert who could cut away the humbug of weeks and get to the kernel of the problem. I was amazed by the lightning speed one care assistant could get through showers and bed-making and serving meals. But I’d like to single out three people for special mention.

Two were medical students who were dispatched to take my history on the first day. They not only took great care to elucidate accurate facts, they were totally sympathetic and respectful, treating me as an equal, a partner in the business of making me well again. And they even popped back several times to see how I was faring, to check if I needed any further information. They showed inherent human kindness and empathy. Our future is safe in their hands.

The third was a student nurse who was especially sensitive to the feelings of all she came into contact with. Intuitively she seemed to know just how to make everyone feel valued and supported – even the most irritating and difficult patients. She took the time to sit with the frail and frightened; she followed up requests; she thanked the patient for their part in exchanges.

So what was the key to the excellence of these three young professionals? Warmth, grace, humility and true empathy with people – worth so much when you’re feeling ill and vulnerable. Almost everyone else in the teams had more knowledge and experience and technical know-how (and of course, we need our healers to possess these skills), but these ‘learners’ stood out for me. Because they took the time to see and indeed value the real person in the bed. I devoutly hope our medical systems don’t evolve to train or force this natural people-skill out of our doctors and nurses of the future. It could be said of one very experienced and senior person I met: ‘He doesn’t do emotion’. I could respect his wisdom but I felt intimidated and somehow guilty in his presence. By contrast, in the hands of those two medical students, at the other end of the food chain, I felt understood and valued.

But enough of this … it’s been a long and taxing day. I’m delighted to report that after two months of incapacitating problems I’ve now been given the correct diagnosis; I’m on the right treatment; I am hoping not to need to report health issues ever again. I might even get back to writing my novel once more ere long! What’s not to celebrate?



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The Kindness of Strangers

This past weekend, on 1 November 2014, a beautiful and highly intelligent young American woman of 29 calmly and deliberately took her own life in Oregon, with the tacit agreement of those who loved her devotedly. She and her new husband moved there from California so that she could legally take this step.

Though I never knew her, I feel sad that Brittany Maynard has missed out on so much that is wonderful in life. Nevertheless I understand her actions: she was terminally ill with a brain tumour and she did not want to deteriorate slowly and unpleasantly. Who can blame her? As she said herself: ‘I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms.’

As it happens, I’ve been identifying more closely with this vexed issue of assisted death than usual this week, because while Brittany was calmly contemplating taking a fatal dose of prescription medicine, doctors were actually working hard to save my life.

After seven decades of valiant but largely taken-for-granted service, my old heart decided to make its presence felt and create a bit of havoc in my life.Get well soon It has set a few records in speed and variety of rhythm over the past week, and when this vital organ is pounding along at 200 beats per minute and assorted members of the medical fraternity are glued to the monitors; when my GP tells my spouse that if ‘anything happens’ between the surgery and hospital, he should pull over and dial 999 – ‘no heroics’; the prospect of death seems unusually close! What’s more, as I am now officially at greatly increased risk of sudden death, heart attack, stroke or other cerebro-vascular disasters, my mind is focusing rather more acutely on what I would choose to happen to me, if I were able to influence anything. And what control I wish to presume over the outcomes. Hmmm.

This is a personal matter for me to ponder, and to some extent share with my loved ones. But the thing I’m carrying away with me from this little skirmish with serious illness is the kindness of strangers. These doctors and nurses who have never seen me before, who will probably never meet me again, who treat hundreds of thousands of assorted odd-bods, have treated me with such friendly efficiency, and respect and dignity and warmth. They’ve even returned expressly to voice their pleasure at my recovery. I’ve been both touched and humbled.

The NHS might indeed often get a bad press – even from its own practitioners! – but when it’s a matter of life and death they can certainly pull out all the stops. I am hugely in their debt. They went well beyond the call of duty for me.

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To see ourselves as others see us

Fear not, I don’t intend to bang on about Malta ad nauseam. In fact this is only my second, destined to be last, post on the subject.

But one thing struck me forcibly during our stay there. The friendliness and kindness of the people. Car drivers would stop – with a smile! – in the street to let pedestrians cross safely. Passengers would walk the length of the bus to give a perfect stranger with a troublesome cough, a soothing pastille. Shop keepers would run along to a bus stop to advise tourists of the right place to wait. The list of kindly acts we saw is too long to enumerate.

And it seems the Maltese have been famous for this for centuries as this church commemorates. The 'Shipwreck Church'The apostle Paul is said to have been shipwrecked on the north coast of the island (Acts 28: 1-11) – although because of maritime knowledge today, some experts doubt the actual location of his grounding. But the locals believe it big time, and Paul is their patron saint. They have statues and churches and roads and catacombs and bays and all sorts named after him.

One surprisingly understated chapel-like Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck in St Paul’s Bay is reputed to mark the site on which Paul and Luke kindled the physical and spiritual fire amongst the people they met when their ship ran aground here during his last journey to Rome. There are embossed plaques telling the story of the shipwreck in pictures and words on the outside of this building.One of the plaques

And one point struck me forcibly: The natives showed us unusual kindness.

The story goes that it was raining and cold when the mariners arrived, so the islanders built a fire to warm them. Paul gathered wood to help fuel it and a poisonous snake, driven out of cover by the heat, fastened on his hand. The islanders took this as a sign: he was a criminal trying to escape justice. Paul however shook the snake off into the fire and carried on as normal. The people watched with bated breath expecting him to swell up, fall down dead – something dramatic. When nothing happened they did a complete about turn and hailed him as a god.

Publius was the chief official on the island at the time and there are lots of references to him too, even today. In the biblical account he welcomed Paul and Luke into his home and entertained them well for three days. We visited a Roman villa from the first century in Rabat and it was obviously a very grand affair with wonderful statues and columns and mosaics. Paul in return healed Publius’ sick father of dysentery. This, not surprisingly, opened the floodgates: the rest of the sick folk on the island poured in looking for a cure. And were healed.

For three months the apostle stayed on Malta, and tradition has it that he declined to stay in sumptuous ease, preferring a cave (St Paul’s grotto) and simplicity instead. Paul's grottoWhatever, the people ‘honoured them‘ and sent them on their way with lots of provisions when they were ready to sail on. Leaving good feeling on both sides.

This friendliness was palpable everywhere we went on Malta and it made me wonder: How would we on our island be perceived? In our towns? During a disaster? On a miserable wet day? In our homes?


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