NanoWriMo – 2nd instalment

Here is the second instalment of my story – enjoy!

Sarah sat in the waiting room outside the hospital’s employee counsellor’s office.  It was hospital policy for anyone who missed a certain amount of work due to illness or personal circumstances to see the counsellor.  Everyone knew it was often just a front, the truth of the matter was the counsellor was not really a counsellor at all; she was there to give warnings to employees who’s performance had been below par and in some cases to assess whether her ‘client’ was really able to continue to be a valuable part of the ‘Northside Health’ family.  Those who were assessed as being such would often be gotten rid of with the least amount of fuss possible under the guise of being assessed as being unfit for work on non-medical grounds (ie incompetent, dangerous or unreliable).  This practice allowed them to avoid that inconvenient return to work policy that enabled employees to gradually return to work or work more manageable hours in their period of recuperation. For an industry focussed on helping people the health care industry was notoriously unsympathetic towards its own workers when they became ill for whatever reason and Northside was no exception.

Occasionally, when the employee was too valuable to let go or too hard to replace the counsellor would arrange a return to work program for them – Sarah was hoping that her training in the area of nursing she was currently working in meant that she would fall into that category but her long record of sick leave and only being capable of part-time work made her nervous.  She hoped the appointment would just be a slap on the wrist; there was no way she could look for a new job right now.  She was sick more days than well, some days she could hardly get out of bed or would only move as far as the couch.

The ringing of the receptionist’s telephone shook Sarah out of her reverie
‘Miss Jones will see you now’ the young woman looked gave Sarah a sympathetic smile over the desk.  Sarah’s stomach dropped like a stone.

Miss Jones, the counsellor, was a horror of a woman with a minor in psychology, a six-figure salary and friends in high places.  As she opened the door Sarah was struck by a tidal wave of perfume – sickly sweet and cloying.  Then she saw the woman herself.  Miss Jones’ obviously bleached blonde locks curled stiffly around her shoulders – they looked so stripped and treated, so full of product that Sarah wondered if they would crackle like straw if you touched them.  The hair framed a face that could have been almost pretty if it hadn’t been covered in so much makeup; foundation so thick you could see it, eyebrows tweezed to within an inch of their lives and pencilled in, overly-bronzed cheekbones, thick, black eyeliner and bright, bright red lipstick.  Maybe the makeup was a last-ditch effort to preserve or give the illusion of youth, whatever the goal it was impossible to tell her age through the paint.  Her nails were fake, red talons – long and rounded, their colour matched her lipstick.  In a workplace where the majority of employees were required to wear a uniform Miss Jones had clearly wanted to stand out as much as possible and her clothes certainly did that from what Sarah could see over the desk.  She was wearing a scarlet shirt with tight sleeves that went to the elbow and a wide, low neck exposing skin that said she was either older than she appeared or spent a considerable amount of time sunbathing in her youth.  The top was set off by copious amounts of sparkly, gold-hued jewellery, black stockings and high leopard print pumps – her skirt was hidden by the desk which she did not get up from as Sarah entered the room.

‘Miss Henderson, please sit’ she indicated a small chair on the opposite side of the desk.  Sarah felt like she had been sent to the principal’s office at school and couldn’t help feeling guilty for some unknown offence she was to be reprimanded for.
‘Sarah, please’ Sarah replied ‘It’s nice to meet you miss Jones’ and extended her hand for the other woman to shake.  Miss Jones looked at her hand a moment and then took it and shook briefly before letting go hurriedly and dropping her hands to her lap.
‘Sarah, I’ve asked you here today so we could have a little chat.  You see, it has been brought to my attention that you may not be coping so well with the difficult hours associated with shift work and the demands of working on the oncology ward.  Is there anything that has changed recently that could be affecting your performance?’  Miss Jones asked, pen poised over a sheet of paper.
‘Well I have been unwell for a while but that is why I am now working part time instead of full-time as I was when I began working here.’ The pen scribbled quickly as Sarah spoke, it was a little distracting but she tried to ignore it and answer the question.  ‘It has been harder for me in recent months because I seem to keep catching things and every time I do it’s harder for me to get back on my feet again.  That is why I have put in a request to my ward manager to further reduce my rostered hours.’  Miss Jones paused and looked up, eyebrows slightly raised.
‘Right, ok then, and you’ve been with us how long now?’
‘Nearly two years’
‘Two years, really?  And how long have you been unwell for?’  It was a question Sarah always dreaded, it had been a long time and it was a long story.  A story that often provoked sympathetic or pitying looks and a change in people’s attitude, almost like she had to be treated more delicately because she might break at any moment.  And the look that Miss Jones had pinned her with was a common one too: a veneer of sympathy barely covering her slightly sneering and sceptical eyes.

‘Actually I have been unwell off and on for around seven years.  It started about half way through my first university degree and at the time I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  Since then it has persisted but there were some symptoms and things that were inconsistent with the CFS diagnosis.  When I began my nursing degree I was improving steadily to the point where last year, the year after I completed my study, I was well enough to work full time.  This year, however, I seem to be catching everything that is going around and for the last six months I haven’t been able to get on top of it, that is why I dropped my hours back to part time.’  Sarah looked up and found Miss Jones watching her closely, her expression more intent than before and no less unsettling.
‘Well that’s a long time to be sick, what exactly is being done about that?’
‘I had some tests recently to determine if I had an immune deficiency but the results, although low, were not significant enough to qualify for the diagnosis.  I am seeing my GP soon and hopefully he will have some news for me, some new avenues to explore but at the moment I’ve had so many tests and seen so many specialists that they’re all running out of ideas’.
‘It must all be very difficult for you, how are you feeling about it?’
‘Well, to be honest it makes things a bit frustrating and all that but I believe I’m coping quite well under the circumstances.  I have a group of very supportive friends and family and of course Peter is great – he’s my partner’
‘Ah yes, of course.  And how do you feel about work? Do you feel like you are coping with it all?’  Sarah looked at her hands
‘Miss Jones, the reason why I want to cut my hours down a bit further is because I can not currently commit to the number of hours I am rostered on for.  At the moment my health is too unpredictable and I have found myself calling in to cancel a shift maybe once or twice a fortnight not only because sometimes I can’t get in to work but because my brain isn’t working so well and I wouldn’t want to make a mistake.  I would never come in to work if I thought I was not capable of giving my patients the care they need and deserve but then that can leave the ward needing to call in bank or agency staff.’  She sighed and looked back up at Miss Jones who was again scribbling on her sheet of paper.

After a few minutes that seemed an eternity, Miss Jones looked up.  She had a small smile on her face that filled Sarah with unease.
‘Well, I know if I were in your position I would be very annoyed with all of this, am I right?’
‘I am a little annoyed, it’s hard not to be really but probably more disappointed that annoyed’
‘So what you’re feeling then is a real sense of fed-uppedness with everything.  Fed up with life, fed up with work, fed up with being sick and fed up with everything, right?’
‘Um…’ Sarah started but Miss Jones just ploughed right on
‘Yes, of course you are.  Now Sarah what I suggest is this: go home, have a nice early night and a good rest, put your feet up, make sure you get enough sleep (you nurses, I know how you all like to burn the candle a both ends!), make sure that partner of yours cooks you a good, healthy meal because you’re probably lacking a bit in some essential vitamins and minerals – lets face it this canteen food isn’t amazing and we never get enough sun working indoors!  Get out there and get some exercise and sunshine and I guarantee you’ll start to feel better and less fed-up with everything.  You’re not the only one around here with a sense of fed-uppedness you know, even I get it from time to time but the important thing is how you cope with it, what you do.  Have a think about that and if you ever need a chat or anything my door is always open’.  Miss Jones smiled at her and then looked back down at the paper on which she had been so furiously scribbling moments before

Sarah left the room feeling stunned.  ‘A sense of ‘fed-uppedness?’ what, is that a medical term?  A term she learned in all of her semester of studying psychology?  The woman is a painted moron’  She grumbled to herself as she angrily strode down the hallway in the direction of her ward.  ‘Sleep?  Vitamins?  Exercise?  Did she listen to ANYTHING I just said?’

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