The way to my heart is through my stomach
3 February 2019 | Tamsin Kingsley
On Saturday I had the privilege of being able to personally thank the lady who used to bring me my breakfast on the children’s ward in hospital. It was a chance meeting at a Makaton signing course and it turns out she also has a child with Down’s Syndrome. To be honest, I think she thought I was a bit mad going into eulogies about my cold toast. But it was cold toast with a smile and a ‘good morning’. I still remember one morning when we’d come in overnight and rather than wake me she remembered that I like toast and left some under a napkin. I was so grateful and felt really cared for.
Another distinct memory of my time on the children’s ward is when I left a toy behind on discharge. On our next admission the play therapist brought it to my room, having remembered it was Izzy’s and kept it safe. What I realised from these encounters and others is that the smallest gesture of kindness can make a big difference, especially to someone under a huge amount of stress.
Similarly the smallest amount of unfriendliness, apathy or discouragement can so easily push you over the edge. When Izzy was first born and on neonates I did get upset, but generally I managed to outwardly keep calm and carry on on the ward, in order to be the best advocate for Izzy’s needs. Presumably the nurses and doctors had good training on dealing with parents under a huge amount of worry and stress and were generally very good at keeping an atmosphere of calm and positivity on the ward. But what was equally obvious to me was that the staff working in the canteen hadn’t had any such training. And yes, you are probably thinking I’m a bit mad for even suggesting it, but at least twice my encounters with canteen staff left me in tears. I was given food vouchers for my lunch by the ward, covering the value of a ‘meal deal’. To this day I don’t fully understand what is covered by this deal (despite asking on several occasions). I’m sure it’s not actually that complicated, but given that any brain space I had was consumed by worries over a very sick newborn, my ability to take in new non-Izzy related information was limited. This would sometimes result in me being charged an extra 20p for a bread roll or vegetable I’d chosen, or having to pay for my drink due to choosing the wrong baguette. I found the staff unfriendly and unhelpful. To be honest, this probably isn’t a true reflection of them at all. I personally think it’s more that they didn’t feel valued in their job, due to the way they were paid and treated, and therefore didn’t believe that they were able to make a difference to people’s lives. But the way I was spoken to and served my lunch honestly made a huge difference to how I coped with each day. Given that they are mostly serving (alongside staff) family and friends of poorly children and pregnant/new mothers, I wonder how much difference it would make if the canteen staff were told what a difference their attitude could make to this group of vulnerable customers, and given training to this effect.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I wasn’t very good at leaving Izzy when she was in hospital over last winter, so it was amazing when I was told I could take Izzy off the respiratory ward for periods during the day. Given that the ward isn’t too far from a strip of Indie/Hipster coffee shops on Great George Street I decided it would be fun to see how each of them coped with a ‘disabled’ baby- at this point she was on oxygen and NG tube fed so very obviously had medical needs. I’m fully aware that babies of any kind wouldn’t be their target market, but Izzy was such a chilled baby I knew she would be fine with it if they were.
The experiment started well, with me visiting Fettle, a Scandinavian coffee shop, pricey but tasty (red velvet latte anyone?). The men serving there went out of their way to interact with Izzy and I, giving me extra loyalty stamps because she was ‘so cute’. They didn’t bat an eyelid when I used one of their sheepskin rugs from the chair for Izzy to lie and play on on the floor (see photo below). It was such a privilege to be out of hospital with Izzy and the experience was made even more memorable by the friendly treatment we received.
Unfortunately i didn’t have the same experience at the next one I tried (which I won’t name), a very Hipster cafe with amazing coffee and food for a reasonable price. For these reasons I really wanted to like it, and so visited a couple of times in the hope they may become more friendly. Instead I just felt like an inconvenience with my baby and buggy, with zero conversation attempts made despite laughing and joking constantly among themselves (this was again run by two men so I’m not being inadvertently sexist). When I took my sister there I actually got a big scowl and eye-roll for asking for two loyalty stamps given that I was buying two coffees (despite this being the stated ‘rules’ on the card).
I won’t go on with my coffee related experiences, but suffice to say I learnt a lot. I think when you are feeling tired, vulnerable, sad or stressed these ‘little’ things do make so much difference to your experience (and your likelihood to return).
I have to admit, I’m not entirely (or at all) innocent in this level of upsetting people. I’ve always been very good at offending people due to apparently having a lack of filter between my brain and my mouth, but I’ve always put it down to other people being too sensitive and not really being my problem. Only recently through my experiences have I realised how important each encounter of your day can be when feeling vulnerable. Over the past few months I’ve found out that I have (in my usual way) upset/offended a few friends, but someone also told me that I had brought them great encouragement. I think it really hit me for the first time how much power each of us has to affect each other lives, in the tiny things as well as the big. As we all know ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ but I don’t think it has to be a responsibility that weighs you down, but rather an empowering responsibility to see how we can help lift others up. A responsibility to remember that I am not the only one with problems and hard circumstances; if I really see others as equals then their feelings as equally as important as my own. This is a big challenge for me, but I will be trying to think more about my words and attitudes over the next few months. I would so much rather be the random interaction of someone’s day that makes them smile than the one that brings them down.
What about you? I’d love to hear your experiences of people who’ve made your day without even realising it, with a simple word, action or thoughtfulness. Do you think it’s our responsibility to be less sensitive to our own emotions or more sensitive to the needs and feelings of others?
P.S. if you’re in Leeds and looking for a cafe where you’ll always be welcome with kids or without, my friend Hazel runs Popalong which me and the girls love visiting. They have toys, books and even craft packs to do for all ages.
I am a 31 year old living in Leeds with my husband and two children. I am a full time mum and carer to Lauren, 5 years and typical, and Izzy, 3 years with Down's Syndrome. Izzy has complex health needs mostly due to her low muscle tone, and struggles with feeding and breathing, resulting in tons of appointments and hospital admissions. Both children are happy and full of life, and our family all love each other very much.
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