Sheffield’s hospitals employ more than 1,200 domestic workers. In the first in a series featuring the unsung heroes of the NHS, Ben Spencer talks to two domestic workers at the frontline of hospital care.
EVERY morning Peggy Brownell’s alarm goes off at 5.30am. The 59-year-old grandmother-of-three leaves her Hillsborough home and takes the bus to the Northern General Hospital, where she clocks in at the palliative care unit.
By 7am Peggy is getting breakfast ready, putting meals onto trays and making a round of tea - the first of many she will pour in the course of a day.
“I take the tea and breakfast round, then it’s a case of getting the cleaning trolley out and damp-dusting and cleaning,” the ward orderly said. “The teas come out again for 10am, then at 12, then at 2pm. That’s when we have our chit chats.”
Peggy - one of six domestic workers at the palliative care unit and one of 1,200 who work at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust - says she makes an impact simply by being there for patients to talk to.
Most of the patients at the palliative care unit are at the end of their lives, being made comfortable by doctors who can do little more to treat their conditions.
“I know I’m only an orderly but I can really make a difference,” Peggy said.
“Most people just want to talk, and that’s where we come in.”
Peggy and her long-standing colleague Lisa Raines were recognised at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals’ annual awards ceremony.
The pair, who have been working at the palliative care unit since it opened 10 years ago, were presented with the trust’s customer care award.
Alison Reitz, manager of the unit, said: “Peggy and Lisa’s dedication and support of patients and families has been phenomenal.
“Nothing is too much trouble for them and as domestic staff their work has been excellent. We have been very, very lucky to have them.”
Alison said she nominated the pair for the award because they go beyond the call of duty, often in their own breaks, to help patients and their relatives deal with the distress of approaching the end of life.
Lisa, 45, a single mum from Sheffield Lane Top, says the key to the job is making people feel comfortable.
“Alison has always said she doesn’t want doom and gloom in here, so it’s about making people smile,” Lisa said.
“When patients first come to us they are frightened and scared, so they can lash out.
“But we know that, so we just try to be as friendly as possible. They love a nice smile.”
She added: “You get really attached to people. The characters you see are amazing and you have some great chats.
“I’m chatting when I clean the bays and rooms. They love to talk - the days are very long for them.”
But she said it can be hard working with people who are going to die.
“You can go in one day and they might have gone,” Lisa added.
Peggy said: “When we first started working here it was very hard. You get to know some of the patients very well.
“But you have to learn to block it. You can’t take it home because you would be an absolute wreck.
“There’s a point where you have to have a cut-off, for the sake of your sanity and for your family.
“But it’s not all bad news - some people do go home and we do some respite care so you see people coming in again and again.”
Both Peggy and Lisa are immensely proud of working in the health service.
“The NHS is a good place to work,” said Lisa. “You see all sorts of life and there are a lot of opportunities for progression, if you want to take them.”
And both are happy doing their jobs.
“If we wanted to go further we could do,” said Peggy. “But I like doing this. I find it very satisfying.”
And they were both thrilled to win the trust’s customer care award.
“Usually you get sidelined, so it’s really nice to get recognised,” said Peggy. “We are really proud.”
Lisa Raines, 45
Domestic worker at palliative care unit
Duties include changing bins, cleaning wards and toilets
Lives with daughter Megan, 20, at Sheffield Lane Top
First started working at the Northern General in 1991. Has worked all over the site, before moving to palliative care when the unit opened in 2002
Grew up in Parson Cross and went to school at Chaucer College. Worked at the Bassetts factory in Owlerton on leaving school, before moving to the NHS in her 20s
Works 8am to 2pm, six days on and two off. Has every sixth weekend off.
Peggy Brownell, 59
Ward orderly at Northern General palliative care unit
Duties include making tea and meals and cleaning common areas
Lives in Hillsborough with husband David, 60, a steelworker
Grandmother-of-three, and mum to Natalie, 37, and Ruth, 32
Has worked as a domestic in the NHS for 23 years - five years at the old Middlewood Hospital and 18 at the Northern General, 10 of them in palliative care.
Works 7am to 2.45pm, on a rota with six days on and two off. Every six weeks she gets a weekend off.