If ever there was a statue raised in the marketplace to community health workers everywhere, it should be modelled on someone like Ella. A smiling figure with an armful of files, a bag on one shoulder, a bath-board tucked under the other arm, a scrap of paper clamped between her teeth.
‘Can you just…take this…’ she says, but I’m not sure which, so I go for the board.
‘Thanks,’ she says, dropping everything else. Then – as if the clutter was the one thing keeping her upright –she collapses back into a chair.
‘What a morning!’ she says.
As an occupational therapist, Ella’s job – to use one of the acronyms that feature prominently – is to assess and support a patient’s ADL’s, their Activities of Daily Living, all those tasks you take for granted when you’re healthy, like being able to get in and out of bed, shower without falling over, cope with the stairs or pick something off the floor; those myriad, simple things so crucial to a person’s sense of well-being and self-determination it’s impossible to overstate their significance.
Occupational therapy is a demanding role, particularly out in the community. Not only do they have to know the equipment back to front, they have to be able to apply it pragmatically, often in creative ways. They need to be methodical, patient, empathetic, adaptable. A knowledge of the city helps, of course. A sense of humour, and an ability to hold a hundred scraps of information in their heads at any one time. But equally important is the ability to drop it all, to step aside from the pressures of working at such a pitch – however briefly – and just be human.
Ella is just logging on to the computer when one of the carers comes over to tell her that a palliative patient she’d seen earlier in the week had died that morning.
‘Oh!’ says Ella, leaning back in the chair. Her body slumps a little, and I’m struck by how personally she takes the news, even though she’s been working in the role for years, is inured to it, has seen thousands of patients, many of whom were palliative, and died in similar circumstances. Yet despite all the stresses of the job, working at full stretch like this, in a system not just coming apart at the seams but at the very warp and weft – despite all this, Ella is still able to respond personally and sensitively to the death of one of her patients, a woman she barely knew.
‘Poor Margaret!’ she says. ‘That’s awful.’
But then the Co-ordinator calls over to her. How’s Ella fixed for the afternoon? Does she have capacity for a P2 faller out west?
‘Sure!’ Ella says, straightening again. ‘Load me up, why dontcha?’