Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Memoirs of a Burger Flipper

WARNING: this post became an awful lot longer than I'd anticipated. I have meant to write about this experience for some time, but didn't think that it would be now: but, once I'd started, I just didn't want to stop. So, apologies.

There are times when your humble Devil can understand why Neil Harding is so bitter: his description of working at Stinky Mac's sounds even worse than my experience of wiping the arses of cripples and septegenarians in a nursing home/medical centre for £4 an hour (which was my first job).
I remember being crew member number 77 on the roster when I started. After just 8 months there, I was crew member number 6, so I was the sixth longest serving member of staff after just 8 months! I think that tells you a lot about the conditions there.

This was before the minimum wage, so I was paid £2.20 an hour. I remember looking despairingly at my payslip one week, I had taken home £78 for TWO weeks full time work (we were paid fortnightly)! Luckily one of the other crew members had warned me in the first week to be meticulous about my pay and keep a diary of hours worked to make sure I was paid properly for them. Apparently the managers were notorious for paying short, even on this pittance of a pay. I remember having to clock on and off for 15 minute breaks, they were even too tight to pay for short breaks.

Apart from all that I do have some fond memories of the place. The one thing that made the job bearable was the fantastic comradery amongst the staff, few of whom, like me, were older than their teenage years.

This was what made the job at the nursing home bearable; strangely enjoyable even. Plus, of course, I had the patients who were, in the main, extremely nice and many were fun to talk to—those who had any idea of where (or who) they were or who still had the faculty of speech, anyway—despite being dealt a really shitty hand in life.

Like Neil, I was living at home and, although I offered, my parents would take no rent off me. Being young and sprightly, most of the time I was working a minimum of 60 hours a week, and often considerably more, as we were always short of staff. Although we were supposed to have five Auxiliaries and one Registered General Nurse working in the mornings, I remember numerous times when there were only two of us Auxes and we had to short out the medical floor alone, with minimal help from the Registered Nurse (the RGNs were almost always... ahem... caught up in paperwork).

Imagine, if you will, a gangly 18 year old boy and a small girl of 21 attempting to wash, clothe and feed breakfast to 30 patients—most of whom were utterly unable to assist in any way and some of whom actively hindered—before 11 o'clock in the morning. It was back-breaking work (almost literally: back injuries, even in experienced Auxes, were distressingly common): 12 hour shifts with minimal breaks and almost no let-up from the constant exposure to your own mortality.

It was the emotional stress that was so particularly draining: yes, the physical work was demanding, but you were always having to be on your toes intellectually. One of my "named" patients was a 29 year old newly-wed who had suffered three sub-arachnoid haemorrhages; as well as having to deal with the fact that this was (and remains) my worst nightmare—being entirely compos mentis but being trapped in a body so wrecked that you cannot even read a book—I had to also deal with his understandable anger and frustration. He was a supposed to have the assigned nurse with him on a one-to-one basis when he wasn't in various therapies which was, given the staffing levels, simply impossible. I was supposed to have him three days a week, and the other named nurse* had him for four; except that my three days were always Friday, Saturday and Sunday and there were no therapies at the weekend (and our staffing levels were always at their lowest). Could you talk constantly, even to your best friend, for 12 hours a day, 3 days a week for a year and continually entertain them? I clearly remember one of the worse times in my year there, when the other named nurse got tonsilitis: I had to care for this patient, plus my other six named patients (all of whom were "neuro cases" and very demanding) for over 3 weeks, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. As an added bonus, during that period the patient's wife told him that she was—and one can hardly blame her—seeing someone else, and his rage and then extreme depression were positively palpable.

The bonus was that my paycheque for that month was fairly hefty.

I dealt with this constant assault on my psyche by drinking like a fucking fish and smoking like the proverbial chimney (although I almost never took drugs, and nothing stronger than hash. Oh, how I wish that I'd discovered Ecstasy or speed by this time!). By 9.30 in the evening, I'd be in the pub—usually with a group of friends—and it was rare to leave having drunk anything less than eight pints. Often, we'd go back to someone's house and continue drinking (and smoking) throughout the night. As a rough estimate, my booze consumption was about 100–130 units a week and I smoked between 80 and 120 of my favourite Marlboro Reds a day (chain-smoking throughout the evenings).

One of the few days that I have ever taken sick off work was near the end of my stint there. With the nature of the job, constant hand-washing was more than a necessity; it became close to becoming a mania. Despite frequent moisturising, your hands swiftly became cracked and dry, and the powder on the rubber gloves made your hands feel as though they were on fire. On the day in question, I simply couldn't handle the idea of putting the gloves on; I worked most of the morning and then had something of a breakdown. I hated to leave my friends in the lurch, but at that time I'd had only one and a half days off in the previous three weeks and was having something of an emotional episode. I went home and drank myself into a stupour, slept for a very long time and was then back in work for 8.30 the next morning.

Throughout this entire period, I was immensely grateful for my total inability to suffer from a hangover. This was, at least partially I suspect, caused by the fact that I almost never completely sobered up. At my peak of fitness in this period, I still weighed rather less than 10 stone, and the amount of alcohol that I was putting away could be described, a la Bill Hicks, as heroic (or fucking stupid: you decide).

Those of us who were stalwarts on the Medical Ward were extremely jealous of the Phychiatric unit upstairs: they always had at least three staff to a mere 6 patients, many of whom were capable of dressing and feeding themselves with minimal supervision: our ratio of staff to patients was never higher than seven staff to thirty patients (a few days of luxury there!). Nevertheless, the staff there were always surly and unhelpful and, though one could occasionally be persuaded to help us out with a couple of patients in a time of real crisis, they usually found an excuse to disappear back upstairs again.

As you can imagine, recruiting new Auxes was a problem. They rarely lasted: I remember two of them going on their lunchbreaks on their first day, never to return. One gallant lass survived three days. Only one person recruited after me stayed for longer than a week, and she was still there when I left (although not when I returned to work for the first two holidays from university).

Yes, that's right: I actually went back a few times! Because, like Neil, although many of the times were very hard and I came very close to mental and physical breakdown (and the massive drinking actually led to a pretty severe dependency and eventual collapse half way through my second term at university), I enjoyed working there. Quite apart from the us-against-the-world cameraderie, the staff were, on the whole, a good bunch of people and I laughed more than I ever had previously in my life.

But it was more than that: one felt that one was actually doing something worthwhile. We did things for our patients that were outside our remit and at our own expense, that made their lives a little more interesting or better, even in some small way. We'd bring in music, or take the more able out on trips to the pub, or even to our houses. We'd make an effort with those who were sidelined through lack of funds; those who had no insurance, and just too well-off for their long-term care to be paid for by the NHS. This happened particularly in the case of the man who owned our local dairy who contracted MS at a relatively young age. His wife was still alive and needed to live; she'd sold their house and bought a smaller one, but still the medical bills were fairly crippling, especially since the main breadwinner could no longer work. Fortunately for her—and, in my opinion, him—his decline was relatively swift; less than ten years from diagnosis to his eventual death about a year after I left.

As you can imagine, my levels of cynicism increased exponentially and my gallows humour, already well-developed was honed further over those months. When you've seen your worst nightmare in the flesh and helped him wipe his arse, you feel that you can comment on these things. And, bloody hell, some of the patients used to laugh—albeit slightly bitterly—at their situation: it would have been rude not to join in...

UPDATE: Right For Scotland recounts his first job at Burger King, and how it really wasn't that bad, actually. He's right: there is that wonderful feeling of receiving your paycheque and knowing that you have worked hard for that cash, and being able to buy things for other people with that cash. The lack of this feeling was one of the reasons that I hated being a student.

* An intelligent (and very pretty) girl, failed by the state school system, she left to train as an Occupational Therapist after my constant urgings that she should try something other than Auxing. She returned to the medical centre as a fully-trained, full-time OT later on in the year, and thanked me for persuading her. I'm still proud of that.


Tim Newman said...

And, despite all of this, Polly Toynbee and her ilk would probably consider themselves to know more about the working class than you.

Anonymous said...

Eloquent. And absolutely bang on.

Apologies for snapping at you over at NHS Blog Doc. You know what you are are talking about. If only Patsy Hewitt-less could say the same.

Neil Harding said...

Only just noticed this post, just to say the happiest people are those who help others, that is real satisfaction not high salaries(although a 'reasonable' salary is nice).

LFB_UK *The Legend* said...

My ex worked in places like that, were very rarely did you get the money you deserved but the knowledge of a job well done is unbeatable.

DK for PM lol, well ok maybe executioner ???

Tenure said...

I never cease to be amazed by how awesome you are. :)

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