Case — a British nurse, spoken-word artist and writer whose poem “Nursing the Nation” went viral several years ago — explains how hospitals assess critically ill patients with the ABCDE technique, checking their airway, breathing, circulation, disability and exposure. She divides “How to Treat People” into the same sections, illustrating what each term means on its most basic human level by dipping in and out of anecdotes from her training and her years on a cardiac unit.
Of breathing, Case writes, “The feel of breath on the fine, peach-skin hairs of my cheek would tell me if this person were still living; sometimes the last breaths come so slow, the only way of catching them is to come in cheek-close and wait for the feel of them.” She spends an entire shift caring for a dying patient, a man with no friends or family, comforting him as his breathing grows shallow and raspy. After he dies, she washes him and gently wraps him in a shroud. Only then does she break, heading for the labor and delivery ward where her sister, Daisy, works: “I fell into her arms, describing in unintelligible gulps how I had just watched a man die.”
It is a youthful, vibrant, cynicism-free book, which gives it great charm. Here the body’s cycle of life and death is recounted fearlessly by a modern woman. She may be a millennial, but she has seen more than many of us. Case — I want to call her Molly, she has that kind of warmth — possesses the poetic sensibility of an old soul in a young body, intuitive and wise. She writes beautifully. She witnessed her grandmother in death, heard her mother cry, “an after-dark animal sound”. On her first student nurse placement, she helped to wash and shroud a still-warm body, watched the kindly health assistant pin a flower and a name tag to the top sheet, and saw the window opened “to let her soul out”.