Hello! My name is Alison! I work as a Clinical Psychologist in the Clinical Health Psychology Service; the final member of the team to blog this month as part of our service promotion! Part of my role within this job is to help individuals and their families manage psychological distress caused by or maintained by physical health problems. Of course as a psychologist I do this at a professional level, but do we always need to be a psychologist to provide psychological care to those who need it?
This is the story of a man with a tea trolley; an ordinary chap who made a big difference to me at a particular moment in my life when the chips were down. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. We only met once and we don’t keep in touch. He probably doesn’t even remember me. He didn’t need to do what he did; it definitely wasn’t in his job remit and he probably bent the hospital rules.
The story starts on a Saturday afternoon several years ago when my husband unfortunately had a heart attack and was admitted to our local coronary care unit. It all came as a bit of a shock as he had none of the typical risk factors. He wasn’t overweight; he didn’t have high cholesterol, and had never smoked. He drank sensibly and walked miles every week. The event itself was fairly low key; just a burning sensation from throat to stomach followed later by an aching jaw. Symptoms so low key that he still went off to a football match that afternoon as planned. Twelve hours later after a trip to A&E (“just to be on the safe side”) our worst fears were confirmed. I’m happy to say that after a successful angioplasty he made a great recovery, but at the time we both pretty devastated. I was beside myself with worry. My stomach churned and my thoughts raced out of control “Was he going to die?”, “Would he have another?”
“Would he be able to stay active?”, “Would he still be able to work?”
I felt overwhelmed. How would I help my husband to cope if I was struggling myself? I had no one to talk to and could not voice my fears to my husband who needed me to be strong. As a Clinical Psychologist with many years experience working with people who have experienced distressing life events, I knew that my thoughts and feelings were normal but I was at a loss as to how to help myself.
The coronary unit that my husband was admitted to was located in another region in the UK and has now closed. My husband received excellent medical care, but as a worried spouse I felt alone. Nurses and doctors were busy. Visiting hours were limited (I was not permitted to stay longer than an hour). I wanted to be near my husband and to feel that others understood that we were in this together. I wanted reassurance. I wanted information. I wanted someone to ask me if I was alright. I felt that I needed looking after too.
One afternoon with all this weighing heavily on my mind, the man with the tea trolley came into my life. I had seen him before on and off during my visits serving hot drinks and biscuits to the patients. He was always cheerful and took the time to have a chat with people. He bustled passed me as I sat in the visitor’s room. I guess he must have noticed my forlorn expression through the window, because he doubled back and came into the room. What he did next was a small act of kindness that changed my day, and helped me feel a little better.
He simply smiled, gave me a cup of tea and said, “It’s hard isn’t it? How are you doing?”
We chatted for a short while about this and that, and he listened to me as I told him what had happened. Of course he couldn’t answer my medical questions, or give me any assurances about the future. He couldn’t really do anything as such, but he was there for me at the right moment and he seemed to understand. He knew I needed a friendly ear. I never saw him again, so I didn’t get chance to thank him. So whoever you are, thank you! That cup of tea made all the difference.
Dr Alison Wren is a Clinical Psychologist for the Clinical Health Psychology Team at NHS Dumfries and Galloway