Аldona Grupas. Like a kitten in water

In Southport, I was given accommodation shared by employees at the same place of work. The workers were of various nationalities, and I was very happy to discover that among them was a Lithuanian woman. I shared a room with an Icelandic woman who enjoyed chatting, and I was happy for the opportunity to practice my English. 

The day after I moved into my lodgings, I was given directions to my new place of work. I went there to get acquainted with my workplace – a small, private nursing home for elderly people. The manager was cold, but she introduced me to a Lithuanian woman who worked there, instructing her to show me my duties.

These involved the daily care of the residents, including feeding, washing and dressing them, taking them to the bathroom, and monitoring their skin and health conditions. Any status changes had to be reported to the nurse. Care assistants were not required to manhandle the patients. For this purpose, there were special lifting devices called hoists or standing aids. I appreciated that what was being asked of me, was a serious and responsible job.

There were three Lithuanians working in the nursing home: two women and a young man.  We became friends and have stayed in contact since then.  One of the Lithuanians, a woman named Jolanta, was a qualified nurse. She explained that the facility employed people as care assistants rather than nurses, regardless of their qualifications.

In order to work as a nurse, she said, I would have to apply to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) for a professional qualification number (PIN). Only then could I start applying for real nursing jobs in England. In Lithuania, I already had my nursing license, but to get my PIN in the UK, I would need to get various documents sent over from Vilnius.

The manager at the nursing home said that I would be summoned to work as soon as they had checked my criminal history. I had already provided the results of a criminal-record check from Lithuania. However, the rules required that a further check be conducted using the UK’s own criminal-records database.

The situation was somewhat different for people who already had the appropriate professional registration in the UK – such as qualified nurses with a PIN. In such cases, no questions were asked about a possible criminal record.

It took over a week for my UK criminal-record check to be completed. As I waited, not knowing when I would begin work, I wondered how I would survive with no income. I felt like a kitten paddling about in a river, struggling to keep its head above water. There was no telling whether I would make a success of this move to a strange country.

 The good news was that in England at that time – at least in the Southport area – one could do all one’s grocery shopping on just £15 a week. In the Asda supermarket, where I usually shopped, it was possible to buy good food at a very low price. I wondered why Lithuania was not like this.

With a lot of free time on my hands, I walked around the town in order to get acquainted with the English way of living. Many things surprised me. For one thing, I saw many people walking around the streets in their work uniforms. There were people dressed as sales assistants and bar staff, for example, as well as nurses. In England, it seemed that no one changed from their uniforms into their normal clothes when they left work.

I was particularly puzzled by the doctors and nurses, wearing the same white uniforms on the streets as they had worn in clinical settings. To me, this did not look right. It was also contrary to the requirements of sanitation, which is an important factor when working with sick and injured people. After a while, I also became a part of that crowd, but I never let myself be seen outside of my working environment wearing my working clothes.

There was also inconsistency in dress codes, with many doctors working without their medical coats, wearing casual clothes instead. At the nursing home where I worked, it was often impossible to distinguish between a doctor and an everyday visitor.

England is a tolerant country, affording basic rights to its diverse and multi-ethnic workforce. However, some of the sights were a surprise to me, newly arrived from Lithuania. For example, I had never before seen doctors wearing headscarves and floor-sweeping skirts. Nor had I seen Indian doctors wearing turbans in their offices. It was good to know that they changed their clothes before entering the operating rooms. In England, as everywhere else in the world, the same rule applies: the theatre must be sterile.

In the following years, I would work in various retirement homes, nursing homes and hospitals, and I learned that infectious diseases – including MRSA and scabies – are fairly common. Indeed, it is still the case that patients often pick up infections at hospitals and other medical facilities in England.




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