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Wednesday 23rd May 2018

On the frontline

6th February 2007

What do you say to a girl desperate for a fag break during the later stages of her labour? Writes Janet Street-Porter in the Daily Mail.


The broadcaster and journalist jumped at the chance to work at Barnsley District General Hospital. Her sister had just been diagnosed as terminally ill with cancer (she has since died), so her interest in the NHS was even more acute. How were the much-publicised targets, league tables and cash problems affecting the health service, and crucially, its patients?

Her job involved cleaning, feeding and generally helping out – all for less than £14,000 a year. But she soon discovered the advertised 37-and-a-half hour week didn’t recognise the extra hours and missed breaks that go with the job.

Even trained nurses, she writes, get a tough deal. Average pay for the largely female workforce stands at £21,300, more than £10,000 less than the mostly male police officers can expect.

Janet began with a stint on the general ward, where two nurses shared 28 patients. She helped feed a 90-something who didn’t want to eat and bathe a woman who had recently died.

‘I was very impressed with the enormous respect the nurses showed. It was extremely moving,’ she writes.

On the maternity unit, Janet wrestled with a newborn and a baby grow, gingerly gave another newby his first bath, as well as meet the nervous soon-to-be mums waiting to fill out forms before admission.

So how do you deal with young women in need of a nicotine fix? Without judging them, she found out.

‘I found it very hard not to be judgmental about some of the girls I was seeing - most had not attended a single ante-natal class, wanted to bottle-feed their babies and had no supplies of powdered milk at home,’ she writes, but was more impressed by the gentle and helpful attitudes of her fellow staff.

Donning rubber gloves and disposable aprons to wipe down surfaces quickly became second nature, but keeping up with the jargon on handovers was far harder.

And having spent a fortnight counting the hours to the end of the day, when push came to shove, quite literally, Janet stayed on at the end of her last shift to see a birth through to the end.

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