Nursing Book Club

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson

A vivid memoir soon to become a TV show

Christie Watson is an English author who wrote two successful novels before turning to nonfiction with this reflection on her 20-year nursing career. Although I found some of the U.K.-specific details puzzling, she has a lot of meaningful things to say about her career and the field of nursing.

Early on, Watson admits that she hadn’t always wanted to be a nurse. A rebellious teenager, she held a number of part-time jobs before leaving school at 16, full of adolescent angst, to move in with her boyfriend and his friends. Then, someone suggested nursing to her and she used her local library to investigate.

Watson explains that in the U.K., nursing education has four paths: adult nursing, child nursing, mental health and learning disabled nursing. Prospective nurses choose their training path in the hospital and follow a mentor. Watson began in mental health nursing, but, true to her nature, she tried several different directions at different points in her nursing career.

As we follow her along her path, she takes the time to explain the history of nursing and of each specialty. We learn about the treatment of epilepsy and mental illness, the legacy of forced institutionalization and the development of neonatal units. She even discusses Florence Nightingale and her work.

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We also learn about Watson’s many personal travails in becoming a nurse. For instance, she originally had difficulty even watching blood draws without fainting! She also found neonatal nursing a challenge because of the need to calculate doses, remarking that “numbers move around my head with no anchor.”

A Vivid Portrait

Because this book was written for a British audience — Chatto & Windus published the book in the U.K. in May 2018 — I occasionally found myself with questions the text doesn’t answer. For instance, I don’t know how long nurses’ training normally lasts in England, or at what point nurses sit for licensing exams. However, this is a minor limitation.

Watson’s strengths, both as a writer and as a nurse, are her empathy and the way in which she expresses herself, which occasionally verges on the poetic. Her descriptions are vivid and memorable, gently reminding us that even though we are nurses, any of us could become a patient at any time.

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Watson retired as a nurse following the success of her first novel, published in 2011. She ended her nursing career as a pediatric resuscitation specialist, a role that combines attendance of medical emergencies and cardiac arrests with in-house teaching across all departments. For someone who didn’t know that she wanted to be a nurse, or even what nurses did, she developed into a well-respected manager who set a high standard for the junior staff. I imagine that her institutions (she was a part-timer at two hospitals) were sorry to lose her.

At first glance, I wasn’t at all sure that I would like this memoir, but The Language of Kindness is a truly wonderful book, beautifully written with compassion and grace. Watson dedicates the book to nurses, and we all benefit from her sympathetic portrayal of our profession.

Editor’s Note: Like Call the Midwife, the memoir of the late Jennifer Worth, RN, RM, The Language of Kindness may soon become a compelling television drama as well as a book. The production company Mammoth Screen (producer of the historical dramas “Victoria” and “Poldark”) optioned the TV rights to Watson’s book even before the memoir arrived in British bookstores.

The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson (Tim Duggan Books/Penguin Random House, 2018)

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.

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