Monday, 17 August 2009

Hospital Stories

How much do you use the experiences of your own working life in your writing? The reason I ask is that I've been saddened by all the criticism of the NHS coming from people in America who don't know much about it - because I spent most of my life working for the NHS and although I'd be the first to admit it's not perfect, I do believe in it passionately and feel aggrieved that people don't appreciate how lucky we are to have it.

What's this got to do with my writing? Well, I've often used hospital life as the background to my short stories: it was obviously easy for me to do so, being surrounded by it all day every day! - and (as is evident from the popularity of TV programmes like Holby, ER, Casualty etc), I think most people enjoy a good 'hospital story'.

Why? Well ... for a start, the range of characters is fantastic. All human life is there - and that's just the staff! Doctors, nurses, technicians, secretaries, porters, cleaners, kitchen workers, radiographers, therapists ... I won't go on, but you get the picture. One of the things I loved about my job was the mix of people we worked with - young and old, all backgrounds, all nationalities, creeds, origins - I learnt such a lot, over the years, just working with so many amazing colleagues.

And then there are the patients: a never-ending source of interest! There were dear old souls who were so poorly, so lonely, so bereaved or bereft it would break your heart, but they were sweet, patient and uncomplaining. Sometimes they just wanted someone to talk to. Then there were the bad-tempered ones, often suffering from no more than an injury sustained in a drunken brawl - demanding special treatment, or being rude and aggressive - but was it because they were actually nervous of hospitals and doctors? There were frightened children, worried parents, people given bad news, others making wonderful recoveries from operations that couldn't even have been contemplated a few years previously. The stories I soaked up, doing my job, were sometimes sad, sometimes heartening, often moving but sometimes funny: a perfect mental megastore of memories to revisit and work into fiction.

Once, I wrote a story about two male doctors having an argument about their girlfriends - which was rejected by the editor I first sent it to, with the words: 'I can't believe doctors would be so childish or spend their time discussing such trivial things'. The story was (very loosely!) based on a true incident, and I showed that editor's response to the young doctors involved - who fell about laughing!

Best of all, I decided to use the hospital background for my third Sheila Norton novel - 'Body & Soul'. When I proposed the idea of the book to my then-editor, she was a bit dubious. She felt that although TV hospital drama was popular, it might not translate well to a novel. But she agreed to look at the first few chapters - and I'm pleased to say, immediately changed her mind. Because I only used the hospital setting as a background - making the characters the focus of the story rather than going into too much technical detail about medicine or surgery - she agreed that it worked well. It went on to sell to an American publisher and has been translated into Portuguese and Russian.

I've written features about the hospital where I used to work for my local paper, and during my years of working there I also co-wrote and co-edited a staff newsletter, and helped to write sketches and songs for hospital shows. When I won my short story awards, and then years later when my first novel was accepted for publication, the support and encouragement I got from staff at the hospital was just fantastic. Working in a large hospital was great for promotional purposes too, as word spread around the hospital community and I was constantly asked for signed copies!

My working life was often difficult, stressful and certainly not helped by targets, rulings and regulations handed down from government, by constant changes to the organisation and heirarchy of hospital management, or by chronic shortage of staff. But on the other hand, it was rewarding and rich in experience, companionship and teamwork.

Sadly, it's the politics in hospitals that often cause their problems - and in my case, they caused my own downfall. The Trust that employed me failed to support me when a technicality in my contract put my job at risk, and sadly my career with the NHS was cut short a few years before my official retirement - so I went on to experience a whole new world of work, in a surveyors' practice, before leaving to undergo a big operation myself. I still feel cheated and sad that things ended the way they did - but I was a casualty of mismanagement at the top of the Trust, and the tactics of central government.

I don't remember the years before the NHS, which was founded the year before I was born - and I think it's a pity that so few of us do, or we might appreciate it more. My 97-year old auntie told me the story, recently, of being admitted to a hospital in London at the age of 8, to have her tonsils out. She had to share a bed (sleeping at the other end) with a male soldier who was being treated for injuries from World War 1. And when she cried for her mother, a nurse slapped her round the face. 'I didn't think that was very nice,' she told me, quite mildly. Her mother - my grandmother - would have been paying for that treatment - but in those days, nobody complained, much less sued, the hospital. My own mother had her tonsils removed by the family doctor, in the kitchen at home.

There are plenty more stories where those came from! I'll never run out of ideas - thanks to the good old NHS!


  1. The NHS isn't perfect but personally I have a lot to be grateful to it for. There's a story in my day job somewhere but I just haven't found it yet.

  2. Very interesting and thought provoking post, Olivia.
    I think most of us owe a great deal to the NHS and it upsets me too when people knock it (it would be better if the higher ups didn't keep meddling with it though!).
    What happened to your poor auntie is awful - being slapped for crying, poor little girl! I could cry myself!
    I can see why you'll never run out of ideas. Lovely post!

  3. Hi, Olivia! Having worked in the NHS previously myself I agree, there are such wonderful stories to tell. The Americans who are complaining can just shut up, quite frankly, and get a proper system of their own! They're only jealous!!

    I don't tend to use my time in the NHS as fodder for my stories for fear that someone I once looked after, a relative of theirs or someone I worked with would read it and cause a right rumpus because they think I'm writing about them!

    You know how quick the RCN and N&MC are to jump on their nurses on the slightest breeze of any wrong doing - whether the nurse is innocent or not - so I steer well clear of that subject matter! Better to be safe than sorry, I feel.

    I think you and I had similar experiences towards the end of our NHS careers with bureaucracy and the like. When you can't seem to do anything right and if you dare stand up for raising the standard of patient care, God help you!

    I have no regrets about leaving the NHS as an employee. I think it has lots of internal niggles that are not helped by the government or management who think they are Gods and can treat their staff like dirt. When you have the management decreeing one thing and the patients and their relatives screaming at you and threatening you (one male staff nurse on a ward I worked on, where a particular patients family were known to be aggressive, was held against the wall on the ward by the throat by this patient's son. And I was screamed at, by the same son, just for writing in his father's nursing notes!! He was screaming so loudly at me that another patient's father heard him from a side room at the other end of the room and felt he had to come to my rescue. But management just let this family get away with their behaviour because they said the family were stressed and needed supporting!! There was no support for the staff who had to put up with it, though!)I don't think they can do much to sort those internal affairs out.

    When you fear for your registration - which we have to pay ourselves - because patients can say what they like about you and it has to be investigated and you are expected to do whatever the Doctor says, whether you think it's right or wrong, or be done for subordination, (as they tried to do to me)It suddenly wasn't worth the effort anymore, so I left!

    Generally, the staff in the NHS are treated poorly and that's a big problem. You are penalised and berated from all sides for trying your best to care for people. There were some lovely patients who once in a while would make you feel better and want to carry on nursing, but they were becoming few and far between. Anyway - great post, Olivia! I think stories from staff point of view in the NHS make great stories! If only the general public knew what out 'respected' and 'responsible' doctors get up to eh?!!

    Julie xx

  4. Thank you all for your comments: I think talking about the NHS always arouses strong feelings doesn't it!

    Gonna Be - yes, I think most of us have lots to be thankful to the NHS for, although sadly there are always going to be occasional awful mistakes because it's impossible to completely rule out human error - and when those mistakes are made, the patients and relatives are obviously distraught and blame the NHS, whereas these things can happen in any system.

    Teresa - I know, I could hardly believe my auntie's story, but I do because, despite her age, her memory is fantastic - she tells some great stories! (I might have to use some of those, too!)

    Julie - I so sympathised with your comments. And yes, sadly I agree with you that NHS staff are treated badly, and I'm so sorry that you had such a bad experience. I was a medical secretary, and for some reason we were never popular with hospital management! We thought it was probably because we obviously worked very closely with the consultants, and they tended to support us against daft management ideas. One of those, shortly before I left, was to ship all the doctors' dictation out to India to be typed cheaply: but we would then have the demoralising job of going through the resulting correspondence, correcting it! They couldn't see why we were upset. Says it all. I was eventually ousted by the government's 'Turn Around Team' who were brought in to get the Trust out of debt - a debt which the C.E. of the Trust admitted was due largely to mismanagement! I had to go because I'd broken my service by just 3 weeks - out of nearly 20 years - to try a different job, and was put on a temporary contract when I agreed to go back. My advisor at the Job Centre was so shocked at my story -she said she'd had no idea the NHS treated their staff like that! But I must emphasise - despite all this, I still believe in the ethics of the NHS wholeheartedly. It just needs a total management shake-up!

  5. Hi, just wanted to leave a comment to say how much I've enjoyed reading your posts today. Best wishes

  6. Hi Elise. Nice to see you here and thank you so much - I'm glad you enjoyed my ramblings!

  7. Hi Olivia,

    I've only just noticed the comment you left on our blogger blog. We have just started our book blog (, it's only 5 months old!

    We posted about your third Tales From book and all three sound fab. If I could find them over here (Tenerife) I'd give them a read!

    If you'd like to do an author interview, drop us an email at and I'll email you some questions!

    Leah x

  8. Hello Leah

    Thanks so much! Yes, I've seen your book blog and I think it's great. Keep up the good work! I'd love to do an author interview and will e-mail you right now! - thanks for asking me.