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'I didn't know if he'd recover': NHS staff on the patients they'll never forget

I didn’t know whether the young man who suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a car crash would recover

When I was a junior speech and language therapist, I worked with a young man who suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a car crash. He could not talk and was fed via a tube in his stomach. It was hard to predict whether he would recover.

After some weeks on the rehab unit, however, he started to show more awareness of his surroundings and began to communicate via a few written words. In one of our therapy sessions, he wrote: “When will I be able to talk?” I gave him the usual spiel about how all brains are different and how everyone recovers at a different rate. Less than an hour later, he was speaking for the first time since his accident.

It was magic. For a speech and language therapist, this was like all the stars aligning. Rehab is a very tough place to work – there are patients who die there – so when this happened everyone was on a massive high. He went on to make a good recovery and when he left rehab, he was walking and could participate in a conversation.

Claire Axton, speech and language therapist, London

Holding a London bombing victim’s hand as they lay on a trolley felt right

I was part of the forensic radiography team who responded to the call for staff in the temporary mortuary set up in the wake of the London bombings. I was in Leeds and got the train down about 48 hours after it happened. When I got to King’s Cross I saw the pictures of those still missing all over the bus stops and any flat surface they could be stuck to.

A team of us worked on identifying the dead victims to make sure the right people got back to the right families. About a week after the bombings, we were told that there would be a two-minute silence for the victims. I was wrapped up in what I was doing and didn’t have a clock nearby. When the announcement came, I was moving a trolley with one of the victims on it. I stopped in the middle of the mortuary, looked down at the person before me and thought: “I can’t let you know that no one’s thinking of you at this time.” I reached down and held their hand.

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It was the longest two minutes of my life as I thought about what this person had been doing that day and who they were. I thought about how this could have happened to anyone. It could have been me. I realised you can’t be certain of anything.

Holding their hand felt right. I wanted to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved. I will never forget the time I spent in London as part of the investigation, but most of all I will never forget those two minutes I spent with one of the victims.

Nick Crohn, radiographer, Orkney

It was hard to get happy endings in mental health but to see one man looking so well was great

Until a few years ago I worked as a specialist mental health pharmacist. Throughout my early time in the hospital there was a man in his late 20s who would often come in.

I’d see him on the male psychiatric intensive care unit. He had learning difficulties, massive substance abuse problems and bouts of psychosis, but always had the best smile. His mum, who was a prostitute, gave birth to him in prison, and he was in the care system most of his childhood and suffered abuse. He was a heroin addict and exceedingly vulnerable.

He thought I looked like his ex-girlfriend, and would follow me back to my car at the end of the day just so he could chat; security would always chaperone us, but it was all fine. We all knew that he needed to go to rehab, but on leave from the hospital he would disappear and we would worry he’d be found dead of a heroin overdose.

In my last week of the job, I bumped into him after not seeing him for a few years; he was stabilised on medication and looking well, and we gave each other a hug and had a catch up. It was often hard to get happy endings in mental health, but lasting stability and independent living are such massive achievements, and it was just great to see him looking so well.

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Anonymous, pharmacist, Somerset

I was thinking about quitting when a braindead 11-year-old and her parents came into my life

As a cardiac physiologist my primary role is ultrasound assessment of the heart. Not long after I had started in the role, I was called in the middle of the night to scan an 11-year-old girl who had been declared braindead. I was asked to assess her heart to see if it would be a suitable donor organ for someone on the waiting list.

This isn’t an unusual request but the circumstances at the time made it a pivotal moment in both my career and my life. I had been covering out-of-hours emergencies for around 18 months and I was struggling to cope with the very emotional situations I found myself in. I was questioning whether I was strong enough and was thinking about quitting.

I was a parent with a child exactly the same age as my patient, and I felt physically sick. The transplant coordinators and intensive care staff were busy sorting out drips so I waited outside the room for what felt like a lifetime. I reached a point where I thought I would have to speak to the consultant and explain I couldn’t go ahead. It didn’t help that I could see the patient through the window and she looked exactly like my daughter.

Eventually the door to the room opened and the child’s parents came out. Despite the pain and the devastation they were going through, they made a beeline for me and thanked me for coming in to make the assessment. I will never forget their bravery. They blew me away: not only had they said yes to organ donation to help another child, they were thinking about my feelings. Their strength gave me strength, and it was a privilege to be able to be involved in such a traumatic but strangely beautiful moment.

Some patients stay with you forever. Since that night I often think of the girl and her parents. She helped others with her donation but also helped me realise I was strong enough to do my job. Since then I’ve helped hundreds of patients. The ripples of small gestures and actions can have massive effects.

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Lucy, cardiac physiologist, east Midlands

Helping a stroke survivor up the stairs to have lunch at his favourite restaurant has stayed with me

More than 20 years ago I was working as a physiotherapist in a specialist stroke unit. There was one man who had suffered a bad stroke who I treated from admission through to his discharge. Over the months I got to know him quite well. His wife used to come in to watch treatment sessions and I found out that they’d been married for 60 years. Part of their routine had been to go out for Sunday lunch at the same restaurant every week. They used to say: “It’ll be lovely when we can go out for Sunday lunch.” When he was discharged home, he wasn’t good on his feet and couldn’t do much independently.

Some time afterwards, his son rang me to ask if I could help him go to their favourite restaurant. There were about 15 stairs to get up and down. It was my day off and I met them there and helped him get up the stairs, so he could have Sunday lunch for the first time since his stroke. Because it was a place they’d been to regularly, everyone knew him. As we got to the doors of the restaurant everybody started cheering and clapping. He was crying, I was crying, his wife was crying, and so was his son.

It was amazing to know that I helped somebody fulfil their goal. Going out for lunch with your wife is such a simple thing, but it meant so much to him and his family. To be able to give him that small thing and be part of helping was important for me. That memory has stuck in my head ever since.

Jackie Hammerton, physiotherapist, Sheffield

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