DDespite working as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital in South London for more than 20 years, it wasn’t until the start of the coronavirus pandemic that Ginny Wanjiro realized what was missing in the care of her sickest and most vulnerable patients.
“Coronavirus really opened my eyes. We had so many patients coming into the intensive care units who were very sick,” says Wanjiro. “Their hair was terrible, their skin was peeling, and they were in very bad shape. I thought, what are we missing here? What do we need to improve the intensive care unit?”
Wanjiro had always tried to take into account not only his patients’ internal health, but also their hair and skin. However, with limited equipment, it was difficult to provide this care to all patients, especially those from diverse backgrounds with curly, curly or afro hair. The hospital, which treats patients from all over the world, primarily serves the residents of Lambeth, a diverse borough where one in four people is black.
Wanting to do more, Wanjiro approached the management of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS trust to ask for funding to provide specialist hair removal combs, brushes, creams and other hair products that could be used on all different types of hair types and textures, reflecting the diversity of the hospital’s patients.
“I told them that our patients’ hair was getting tangled, that we couldn’t comb our patients’ hair properly, and they asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted each and every comb to represent the hair of the patients coming in, says Wanjiro.
– We knew we needed more [equipment] when a black girl came in, or a black patient with an afro or with a wig, and I thought, we don’t have the right equipment to do this.”
Six months after Wanjiro’s first meeting with management, she was granted the funding and her hair care initiative was launched in September as a pilot in four of St Thomas’ intensive care units. So far, more than 20 nursing staff have been trained by Wanjiro to provide hair care services to their patients, and more than 250 have been treated for this service. The hair care services cover more than just the basics – patients are often treated to having their hair washed, cut, blow-dried and even braided if they wish.
The positive impact the pilot has had on the mental wellbeing and confidence of some of the most vulnerable patients at St Thomas’ has been immeasurable, with many of the patients’ relatives writing to Wanjiro to express their gratitude for the new service.
“No one wants matted hair or dry flaky skin,” says Trish McCready, an ICU nurse at St Thomas’ who is part of the hair care initiative. “So it’s good to be able to take good care of the patients, because they really appreciate it, and their relatives appreciate it too.”
For McCready, providing hair care services to patients is not just a superficial exercise, but essential to their recovery.
“They won’t leave the hospital when they get better with knotty, matted hair and terribly dry skin. They want to leave in a reasonably sane state, if not a little better than when they arrived, says McCready.
“It makes them feel better psychologically too – they’re all part of the patient family and we all want them to get better and have the best possible experience, because probably it’s not going to be the nicest journey going through intensive care.”
This view is shared by Kemi Okelana, a critical care nurse who is also part of Wanjiro’s pilot. “We spend so much time looking after the internal organs, so it has to be holistic and balanced. Because if you feel good on the outside, it will help you feel better about the development of your disease, says Okelana.
The pilot, due to end in December, is to be reviewed by the trust’s management. There is a good chance that, due to its popularity with patients and their families, it could be introduced across several wards at St Thomas’ and become a fixture in NHS hospitals across the country.
“It will hopefully be a massive change [throughout] the whole of the NHS, and we will make it happen, says Wanjiro. “Our goal is to make sure that when our patients come into the hospital, they have the best experience and even look a lot better than how they came in,”
But ultimately, Wanjiro’s passion and belief in the effectiveness of her hair care initiative comes from her strong desire to help people.
“I’ve always had the feeling that I want to do more and that I want to care. I want to take care of sick patients and be their advocate, says Wanjiro. “It just makes me feel better. It’s not a banker’s job or all that, but this is me and I love it and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”