SW Newsletter #28

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Dec 23rd 2007

Welcome to the latest newsletter and a warm welcome to the new members of the Star Wards’ community. This seasonally sparkling edition is possible thanks to the extraordinary imagination and patient-involving skills of the staff at Highcroft Hospital, Birmingham. I’m very grateful to Patrick Cullen, Inpatients’ Service Manager (and lead nurse and Christmas Spectacular Co-Host) for inviting me to Highcroft’s Christmas extravaganza. It must be said that the effort, courage and creativity Highcroft put into special events is matched by their impressive clinical practices. We’ll includes these in a future newsletter.

CaptureWithout wishing to sound judgmental, I have to say that when I’m met by colleagues in hospitals, they invariably wear a limited range of clothes. Suits, jackets, dresses (usually the women). Sometimes maybe a little outré touch like slightly loud ear-rings. But not until I visited Highcroft have I been greeted by someone in full Victoriana gear, from top-hatted head to Dickensian toes. (Presumably. I didn’t actually carry out a podiatric audit.) And Patrick was accompanied by an equally nineteenth century colleague – Jil Thomas, Modern Matron and Victorian…. Um, I’m not quite sure. Snow Maiden? Santina Clausette? Well, you decide:I was gob-smacked by Patrick and Jil’s full-on embracing of the Christmas spirit, and then completely awe-struck by what the wards had achieved. Apparently Highcroft is renowned for its exuberant celebration of all occasions – Easter, Valentine’s Day, Lesser Spotted Terrapins Day etc. And the trophy for the ward with the best decorations and accompanying song (!!) is hotly contested. This year’s ward challenge was to decorate the ward in the style of a Christmas song and corral a choral group together to perform that song.

Forward House had a big clue to their song theme, with “Let it snow” adorning their front window, along with reindeers, decorated with little blue lights. But the inside snow scene could have been produced for Selfridges. A member of staff modestly explained the origins of the snowman: “it’s amazing what you can do with two gym balls and a giant roll of cotton wool.” Similar improvising produced little penguins & mini-snowmen, set against a snowy background and icicles dangling from ceiling. Their performance began with a resident doing an inspired and skillful rap of Let It Snow, followed by the Forward House choir delivering it in the more familiar manner.

Onto the Eden Unit, where the doorway was atmospherically covered with faux snow. But we certainly got the real thing with the rest of the ward decorations. The corridor felt like a cross between a sensory room on speed and a community art gallery, with patients’ pictures illustrating each of the 12 Days. Here’s the Snow Grotto. You’ll be pleased from a health and safety perspective to see that the ward conscientiously armed the snowpeople with a fire extinguisher.

This is an acute admissions’ ward which understands engagement. One that managed to motivate every patient to be part of the choir, along with all on-duty staff, combining to do a show-stopping I2 days of Christmas. Most choir members were dressed as Santa, a reindeer or a snowman and one in a combination. Here’s a good example of the resourcefulness of acute care staff. Along with a snowman head complete with antlers, he was togged out in a white infection control boiler suit: “I got it from forensic.” Patients had produced glittery versions of those books professional singers use. (I’ve always wondered why professionals don’t just learn the songs off by heart. Eddie, my mentally handicapped foster son, knew the words of most of the Sex Pistols’ songs at the age of 5.)

Endeavour Court gave a discreetly choreographed, very participative rendition of Rocking Around the Christmas Tree. All 3 wards then did a sing-and-dance-off X-mas Factor-style in the activity centre. The judging panel (staff governor, nursing director and consultant psychiatrist) weren’t red herringed by the accusation that the Eden Unit choir had been infiltrated by Hilary from the Home Treatment Team. They stuck to the task, with the consultant asking the audience about one of the choirs: “Did they get your bells ringing?”

The Panel. Note the parlour maid in the background!! And the lovely table decorations.

Informality, humour, pleasure, inclusivity, mingling, achievement, so much was gained for staff, patients and visitors through this extravaganza and its elaborate preparations. I dissociate so I’m ‘allowed’ to have two mutually exclusive feelings about the event. The hospital now shares with a large housing development the same site as the old ‘asylum’, still watched over by the classic tower. Yet the event was so laid-back, participative and non-hierarchical that it felt like this was a ‘regular’ community centre, not a psychiatric hospital. But some of the time I felt very aware of it being a psychiatric hospital, especially when I saw the unexpected and welcome scene of patients who looked or behaved pretty out of it nevertheless taking part, in however low-key a way.

Friendly rivalry seemed to contribute to the drive to excel. It would be interesting to do a controlled experiment to see what effect it has making admissions near Christmas subject to a rigorous audition compared to the so yesterday criteria conventionally used.

Wishing a very merry season and a gorgeous 2008 to all Highcroft staff, patients and carers, and to all of you – the lovely readers of and contributors to our e-newsletter.