The Hospital Visit – an everyday story

On first impression, it was more like a small airport than a hospital. You came round a corner to a busy, wide, open approach, with an endless procession of buses and cars looping in, dropping off, picking up, driving off.
Large glass doors opened into an entrance hall that was vast, bright, and airy, with a central staircase sweeping up from a big seating area, with shops lining both sides: a coffee chain, a small supermarket, a newsagent, a pharmacy, and more.
Only beyond lay, not security checks and departure lounges, but long corridors with signs pointing to the fracture clinic, outpatients, the maternity unit… And with the exception, mostly, of the latter, the constant bustle of people weren’t there for anything resembling a happy experience.
Along the main corridor, the walls decorated with patients’ artworks, with posters, they hurried or ambled or limped or wheeled themselves, talking to companions and steeling themselves for whatever lay ahead.
“I’m starving, shall we grab a sandwich after this, or do you want to try the restaurant?”
“Do you think it will rain later? I should’ve brought an umbrella. I think it will rain later. Why didn’t you remind me to bring an umbrella?”
“I don’t think it will rain.”
Conversation for the sake of not talking about why there were there, what lay ahead.
The flow was slowed by a family of three walking side by side, so depressingly obese they took up the width of the corridor, till they peeled off into obstetrics and the log-jam cleared.
“That’s a good picture, look.”
“Oh yes, and she’s only 13.”
The two women paused barely two seconds to look at a schoolgirl’s artwork on the wall, also a distraction from what they were walking towards. They were torn between wanting to be there for him, and dreading it.
The geriatric wards weren’t the last offshoot from the main corridor: perhaps someone had realised that might create a bad impression – shut off from the rest, tacked on the end, or perhaps a reminder that they were for many of their patients ‘the end of the line’.
The two women stopped at the door and pressed the buzzer to be allowed in.
“I get security on maternity units, but who’d want to get in here?” mused the younger one. “Or is it to keep the patients in, rather than criminals out?”
“I wonder if he’ll be awake today,” said the other, neither wanting to let the other know their real apprehensions.
The unit was divided into rooms with one to seven beds in each, off a central nursing station. But today, there were only six beds in the room they entered: a big gap where previously Norman had been, the only reminders of him a card and fruit on his locker, his name on the wall, and his prosthetic leg on the floor, still wearing a hospital non-slip sock.
“I thought it was a body on the floor for a second,” whispered the older woman. “He must have gone for a scan or something.”
The names on the walls were a social study of sorts: Norman, Dennis, George, Leslie; Edward ‘Ted’, and; two Johns. Names of their time. Ted was lying in his bed, which was folded into a kind of S rather than being flat, so he couldn’t lie flat and perhaps choke on the mucus from the chest infection adding to his woes. His eyes were shut, his mouth open.
That’s not Grandad, the younger woman wanted to say. That weakened shell of a person, that husk, that’s someone else.
“Dad, are you awake? We’re here,” the older woman was shaking his arm.
“I’ll get chairs from the corridor,” said her daughter, glad to be Doing Something, even if it was so insignificant. “Don’t disturb him if he needs his rest.” she added, to no avail.
Sitting on the cheap plastic chair by the bed, while her mother stroked Ted’s bare arm and pulled at a hair on the back of his hand, as a kind of reflex action, she looked around, trying not to appear nosy.
George was sitting in a chair, being force-fed, as usual, by the thin woman, presumably his wife, who for whatever reason always seemed to be spooning things into his mouth whenever they visited.
Leslie was also in his chair, lolling asleep while a DVD played on a screen in front of him. “A beautiful sky, a wonderful day, Whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away,” sang Doris Day, clashing with the music playing in the corridor: “I could have danced all night.”
It added to the sense of cruelty, somehow, these songs from when these men were in their prime. When they could, perhaps, have danced all night, when they for sure went out to work each day and mowed the lawn at weekends and were strong, responsible men. Not what they had been reduced to by time.
Dennis was on the move again. His pyjama trousers gripped in one hand, to stop them falling down, his bare chest revealing tattoos that suggested maybe a naval past, and which now added to that sense of lost strength, he shuffled past them and out of the room, only be to led back a few moments later by one of the staff.
“Tea’s not till five o’clock, Dennis, we’ll bring it to you then.”
“Dangerous land, no time to delay, So, whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away.”
John I had visitors, a man and woman who might be a son and daughter, or in-laws.
“Robert died the day before yesterday,” the man informed him.
“He’ll be keeping a candle lit for you in heaven,” added the woman, causing Ted’s granddaughter to widen her eyes in shock at how tactless it was.
“Sheila wants to talk to you,” said the man, handing over a mobile phone.
“Hello Dadda,” the voice filled the room. “How are you? I saw the divorce lawyer yesterday. I’m a bit short of cash at the minute, I need to borrow some to tide me over…”
Did the poor woman know she was on speakerphone?
The curtains had been pulled round John II’s bed, but the privacy that afforded him was only visual.
“What’s the name of the prime minister?” a woman was asking.
A long silence: “Do you know the prime minister’s name?”
“I’m just thinking, give me a minute,” was the cross reply.
“Ok John, can you tell me what year this is?”
“What year? What is all this about? Why are you asking all these stupid questions? Give me a minute. It’s 19… it must be 19…”
“Ok John, can you tell me when the Second World War ended?”
“Why are you interrogating me? What’s the point of all this?”
“It’s not five o’clock yet, Dennis.” Ted’s granddaughter hadn’t noticed him wander behind her again, until another member of staff patiently led him back.
Ted was still sound asleep, her mother still stroking his arm. His granddaughter read the details on the drip draining into his arm, the instructions on food and drink on the wall above his bed.
‘Twenty-three miles we’ve covered today, So, whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away’.
To her, he had always been ‘old’: he’d been 60 when she was born. But, he’d been active and busy until this illness, and she knew that to her mother, he’d been the strong person she relied on when she was a child to look after her and protect her. Now reduced to the indignity of a catheter with a bag of urine hanging on the side of the bed for anyone to see.
The curtains around John II’s bed were opened, the staff left. The complaints didn’t.
“Why do they interrogate you like that? What’s the point of it? What does it matter who is prime minister?”
She couldn’t tell him the truth, that it was a test for dementia and not even knowing which century it was, he’d not done very well.
“They asked me who my next of kin is. What’s that about? They’re just after my money.”
Again, she couldn’t tell him the real reason, so she just smiled sympathetically.
“It’s like the Army and Navy in here. I don’t want to be told what to do. Put me in a garden shed and leave me there.”
“You’d rather they left you alone?”
“Yes, I would. You work hard all your life, and they boss you about and tell you what to do.”
Her heart went out to John II and to all of them. She had no idea what any of them had been, but they’d had lives before this. John II might not know when the war ended, but he’d lived through it, perhaps been evacuated with a label round his neck to strangers, perhaps played with toy planes while waves of German bombers flew overhead. Ted had told her how he’d come out of the local library to see just that, and how the sky that night had been so bright from burning buildings you could’ve read a book by it.                       “It’s not five o’clock yet Dennis.”
And her admiration goes out to the staff, who have to empty urine bags and change men’s nappies and who have to cope with the terrible sadness and hopelessness of it all, every single day.
Not that the patients appreciated it. Two days ago, Ted had spent most of their visit insisting he had to get up, to use the toilet; refusing to accept the catheter meant he didn’t need to. Next day, when the physiotherapist was trying to persuade him it would be nice for him to sit in his chair for a while, he’d refused to let them get him up: “What’s the point?”
“Why I am here? No one is doing anything? Why can’t I go home?” John II likewise doesn’t realise they are doing all they can do, and doing everything he can’t: keeping him safe, fed, hydrated, comfortable, medicated. Can’t or won’t accept he can no longer manage by himself, as he has done all his adult life.
The DVD was dialogue now, with the corridor music audible above it, and next up was: ‘Oh, the Deadwood stage is a-rolling on over the plains.’
Nooooo! Not again!
John I tells his visitors he’d like to rest now, please. A polite way of saying: “Go away!” He knows what year it is, and likes to read books, but he can’t stand unaided and when they visited yesterday, was behind curtains, groaning in pain as the staff administered morphine.
Even if any of them recover from this and can go home, all they have to ‘look forward to’ is further infirmity and death, thinks Ted’s granddaughter. Her mother at times accepts that he has had a good and long life and ‘no one lives for ever’, but at others is in tears. And she wants to cry, too, but is trying to be strong for her mother and at times feels like this is all about supporting her, and not about Granddad at all.
“It’s not five o’clock yet, Dennis.”
‘Whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away, whip-crack-away’.
“Perhaps we could get coffee and come back after, maybe he’ll be awake then,” she proposes.
“I don’t want to leave him, what if he wakes up and wonders where we are?”
“Mum, he won’t know if it’s visiting time or breakfast time, and you can’t be here every time he wakes unless you stayed here 24 hours a day. Come on, we’ll come back again after.”
She feels like she’s being brutal, harsh, but it’s all that seems to get through to her mother these days.
Her mother nods that she is right, and they stand and leave the room, just as Norman is wheeled back in.
And so they sit in the café, looking out over the buses and cars arriving and leaving, and talking about anything and nothing, for the sake of not talking about how they are feeling. And she wishes so much that it WAS an airport, and she could jump on a plane, any plane to anywhere, and get away from this sorrow for a while.

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