The old woman coughs hoarsely into a handkerchief, pulling the mask from her face. We use morphine to keep her free of the agitation of respiratory distress, and nebulized drugs to keep her airway open, as well as make the cough productive. Eating and drinking are hard to do when you are constantly on an oxygen mask. Even with the oxygen off your mouth, there is oxygen flowing into your nose. This is not really helping her to live, merely setting trails to her dying with tubes and wires.
The webpage London Air gives you very measured and description of how air pollution can affect conditions like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). It does however not give any insights into the emotions of those suffering from the disease, often caused by our bad air quality, nor of those who care for them – London’s many fine nurses, healthcare assistants, allied health professionals, and doctors. We do the best we can with people panicked and traumatised at their own bodies’ failure. The ravages of COPD are quite ghastly to behold. Many patients bounce back into hospital a short time after their admission with the same problem, but with a poorer prognosis. Our treatment of them has only been a sticking plaster, placed over the cracks. We do our best to keep people happy and enjoying that bare, reduced life they lead in hospital. Back out in the polluted streets and modern slums of London we do not see or hear them – they are invisible – save when they re-emerge from this “illspring.”
The “sticking plaster” seems for me symbolic here, as it mirrors our government’s attitude to dealing with climate change. For a small cut, a “sticking plaster” is ideal, but climate chaos is a huge, scarifying wound – capable of destroying communities, dwellings, lives and –as time may tell – societies. Nothing small or temporary will do. I did not want to be a “sticking plaster” in the battle against extinction and the poisoning of our environment. Nurses have long been patient advocates. But that advocacy remains locked to our clinical area for the most part. We should remember the bravery of some of the first modern nurses such as Mary Seacole, who, derided and scorned, journeyed into battles to take injured soldiers away from harm’s reach or tend to their injuries.
But long before the Crimean War, women, and occasionally men, provided help to their communities when it was not always safe and went against the authorities’ wishes. What were the state-sanctioned Stuart witch trials of England other than an attack on local “healers” and “pellars”. Most of these people did the best they could with a lack of science and scant resources. It was in some sense a power grab enacted by James I – drawing influence away from local knowledge and talent and making the country ready for the Age of Reason, which was all too keen to throw the kernel of medical wisdom away with the chaff for being folksy. The 17th century Stuart regime was faced with a crisis, in the form of the 1665 plague, a terror that took the lives of 100,000 people. The clinical heirs to the folk wisdom of ill health, the plague doctors, were not able to offer good remedies. The rich fled London. Industrialisation and human misery helped to spread the damage. This history offers us a smaller scale parallel of our modern situation. The difference is that we can stop extinction with our knowledge and tactics, whereas early modern clinicians had little hope of stopping Bubonic epidemics. Not to detract from their humanity and human sensitivities, but nurses are made for crisis situations, whether that be widespread disease or climate change.
Nurses should feel empowered by being trusted figures in the community, the inheritance of a job that is a vocation nor a career. We can speak about climate chaos, as well as report from the frontline of pollution and degradation’s effects on our nation’s health. We have the social connections of those wise women of times forgotten, but with a deeper pool of knowledge and more possibilities of working together within our networks. We can relay the suffering of those in poverty and lingering in chronic illness and give voices to the voiceless. We can be more than mere “sticking plasters” in sum. Which is why, as your fellow nurse, I would passionately urge all of you to join Extinction Rebellion.
Tom Lennard @tomlennard
You can get involved with the Extinction Rebellion health workers group at “XR Health Workers”.