As a child, Christie Watson could not decide what kind of career she wanted. Marine biology appealed to her, as she had “visions of wearing a swimsuit all day… and swimming with dolphins.” A teacher proposed law, telling her parents “[s]he can argue all day long.” After quitting school at 16, Watson took a job with an organization called Community Service Volunteers. A nurse there suggested she try nursing: “They give you a grant and somewhere to live.” To the surprise of Watson's family and Watson herself, nursing stuck, and I'm thankful it did. In her memoir, The Language of Kindness: A Nurse's Story (Tim Duggan Books, 2018), Watson reminds us that generosity of spirit is fundamental to nursing, even though that value can be easily forgotten in the high-stress environment of modern health care.
Watson, who is British, credits her “mum” with teaching her the language of kindness by indulging her youthful vegetarianism and dramatic campaigns for animal rights. Looking back on her 20-year career, Watson declares that the practice of nursing requires as much thoughtfulness and creativity as it does applied science: “We will explore… [w]hat I thought nursing involved when I started: chemistry, biology, physics, pharmacology and anatomy. And what I now know to be the truth of nursing: philosophy, psychology, art, ethics and politics.”
Watson is both undeniably kind and disarmingly candid in her writing, and the combination gives the book its quiet power. She tells us that in her first week of nursing school, during a routine screening, she fainted at the sight of her own blood. The phlebotomist's response: “You fainted, dear. Happens. Though you might want to rethink your career.” When she begins her first job as a psychiatric nurse, a patient pretends to be her new supervisor and Watson only figures it out when, after touring the unit, her “supervisor” tells her, “We are not here to dispute the possibility of extraterrestrial activity in another galaxy,” and laughs gleefully.
But Watson's compassion fuels her work and sees her through. After she's met her real supervisor and has become more familiar with the patients, she rushes to help a patient named Derek who has slashed his arms in multiple places and is bleeding profusely. She finds the worst cut and figures out how to apply pressure so that the bleeding stops. Both she and Derek are covered in blood, and yet, she realizes, she doesn't feel dizzy or faint. She focuses on Derek, pressing so hard on his wound that her fingers feel numb: “I want to scoop him up somehow. To wrap him in a blanket and keep him safe.”
Watson's training took place 20 years ago, but it seems far more gentle and organic—more marked by kindness, perhaps—than the rushed orientations American nurses receive today. Watson observes her mentor and learns at a pace she finds manageable, or as she endearingly describes it, “I follow Anna around like a lost puppy and try to memorize everything.” In contrast, U.S. training seems built on a “sink or swim” model, which may partly explain why 33% of U.S. nurses leave their first job within two years.
Watson had a varied nursing career, and this memoir traces her path from working on psychiatric and NICU units to becoming what in England is called a “resuscitation nurse.” Ultimately, though, she locates the emotional core of nursing in the fundamentals of patient care that occur every day: “Washing and dressing patients, helping to feed patients, toileting, making them more comfortable. These tasks lie at the heart of nursing…. Kindness, empathy, compassion and providing dignity. This is what makes a good nurse.”
Health care is becoming increasingly specialized, technical, and focused on profits. Watson's focus on benevolence and grace serves as a moving reminder that the goal of nursing is to “treat the whole patient, and the family,” not “performing unnecessary [interventions] to generate income.” Overworked nurses who routinely work “short” may have a hard time embracing Watson's ideal. But the gentleness of Watson's voice and the generosity of her observations make reading her book an immersive experience in the value of kindness in nursing. It's a lesson I intend to take to heart.