Ark, Serge Lachinov, Woodcut, 1998
Prayer (I), George Herbert
PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
I have been much disturbed by the reports of the death of a young man with mild learning difficulties and epilepsy he was in the care of the local health services. Left unattended, he suffered a fit and died. There have been official reports finding room for improvement with processes and procedures. Lessons will be learned and applied. This young man’s mother is mounting a ferocious campaign, helped by a leading law firm and a charity. The lessons learned will not bring back her child.
It’s not for me to comment on any of the details of this case, but, overall, this young man’s death brought up some particular memories and reactions. I have worked in the past in places which care for people with learning difficulties. In one place, an old ‘asylum’ or ‘bin’, being decanted, as they say, into care ‘in the community’, there were failures at all levels, from senior management to the day-to-day carers, many of whom were unskilled, very low-paid and exploited. There were problems caused by neglect and the historic nature of the place – some of the residents had been admitted as children when the place was, in effect, a charitable workhouse. History and time had passed them by as the world changed outside and they remained, in effect, seventy or so years later, children. Some had medical problems; others, behavioural difficulties. There were few of the horrors one heard about in other, larger, more isolated institutions. There were many, many exceptional and compassionate staff. There were times of happiness and fun. Despite all the problems, including indolence, exhaustion, negligence and just plain can’t-be-bothered-ness there were some iron-cast rules: one of these rules was that you never ever ever left someone with epilepsy unattended in the bath. If this was the case in the ‘bad old days’, I am truly shocked that decades later, in a world where we were assured that good practice would improve things, that the community would ‘care’, a life is lost and a mother is bereaved and lessons will be learned. I am too judgmental – it could happen to any of us, many of us. But the management attitudes outlined in the linked articles above make me feel furious, I’m afraid.
I thought a lot about those olden days of mine. Nursing these days is an honoured profession, and rightly so. It is also, though, a vocation; it’s hardly the pay alone which keeps people going. There is something extra that makes a good nurse and a good carer – the spark of something, a true ‘in-spiration’ that is not sentimental or sad, that allows proper care and healing to take place. It is not self-denying. I have no idea what it is, other than it is ungraspable. Let me know if you know….
I dug out an extraordinary book, which is, in fact, highly sentimental. It is Becoming Human by Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities. These are places where people with and without learning difficulties live together in common. L’Arche means Ark. These communities are places of refuge for those with disabilities and for those who work with them. What Jean Vanier says about why people with what he terms ‘intellectual disabilities’ are ignored or mistreated is that we are all in some ways harmed or broken. We fear the weak, the disfigured and the vulnerable and we react to this fear: we project, we block and we lash out. We wish for perfection, and for invulnerability. In order to truly care for others we must face these facts about ourselves and our culture and we must grow together.
This is a bit of an impossible dream in a world at war and in thinking about a state service that relies on procedures and neglects love. The state cannot love you, that is simply a fact. And I don’t agree with everything M. Vanier says. But his work and his ideas are worth sharing and considering. We are possibly part of an impossible dream ourselves, aren’t we?