‘It makes them feel better’: skin and haircare regime a hit for ICU patients

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Despite having worked as a nurse at St Thomas’ hospital in south London for more than 20 years, it took until the start of the coronavirus pandemic for Ginny Wanjiro to realise what was missing from the care of her most ill and vulnerable patients.

“Coronavirus really opened my eyes. We had so many patients coming into the intensive care units who were very sick,” Wanjiro says. “Their hair was terrible, their skin was flaky, and they were in a really bad shape. I was thinking, what are we lacking here? What do we need to improve the ICU?”

Wanjiro had always tried to pay attention not only to her patients’ internal health, but also their hair and skin. Yet with limited equipment, it was difficult to provide this care for all patients, especially those from diverse backgrounds with curly, coily or afro hair. The hospital, which treats patients from all over the world, primarily serves the residents of Lambeth, a diverse borough in which one in four people are black.

Wanting to do more, Wanjiro approached Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS trust’s management to ask for funding to provide specialist detangling combs, brushes, creams and other hair products that could be used on all different kinds of hair types and textures, reflecting the diversity of the hospital’s patients.

“I told them that our patients’ hair was becoming matted, that we could not comb our patients’ hair properly, and they asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to have every comb that represents the hair of the patients that are coming in,” Wanjiro says.

“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 was like, we don’t have the right equipment to do this.”

Six months after Wanjiro’s initial meeting with the management, she was granted the funding and her haircare initiative was launched in September as a pilot across four of St Thomas’ ICUs. So far, more than 20 nursing staff have been trained by Wanjiro to provide haircare services to their patients, and more than 250 have been treated to this service. The haircare services cover more than just the basics – patients are often treated to their hair being washed, cut, blowdried, 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.

“Nobody wants to have matted hair, or dry flaky skin,” says Trish McCready, an ICU sister at St Thomas’ who is part of the haircare initiative. “So it’s good to be able to look after the patients properly because they really appreciate it, and their relatives appreciate it, too.”

For McCready, providing haircare services to the patients is not just a superficial exercise, but crucial to their recovery.

“They don’t want to leave hospital when they get better with knotty matted hair and horribly dry skin. They want to leave in a reasonably sane condition, if not a little bit better than when they arrived,” McCready says.

“It makes them feel better psychologically, too – they’re all part of the patient family and we all want them to get better and to have the best experience possible, for probably what’s not going to be the nicest of journeys 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 needs to be holistic and a balance. Because if you feel good on the outside, it will help you to feel better with the progress of your illness,” Okelana says.

The pilot, which is due to come to a close in December, will be reviewed by the trust’s management. There is a strong chance that due to its popularity among patients and their families it could be introduced across more wards at St Thomas’ and become a permanent fixture within NHS hospitals across the country.

“It’s hopefully going to be a massive change [throughout] the whole of the NHS and we are going to make that happen,” Wanjiro says. “Our aim is to make sure that whenever our patients come into the hospital, they have the best experience and that they even look much better compared to how they came in,”

But ultimately, Wanjiro’s passion and faith in the effectiveness of her haircare initiative comes from her strong desire to help people.

“I always had that feeling that I want to do more, and that I want to care. I want to look after sick patients and to be their advocate,” Wanjiro says. “That 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 would not change it for anything.”

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