Getting undressed and dressed whilst immobile from the neck down and only one half-working hand is quite a performance. The thing that makes it really difficult is the lack of hands rather than the immobility. I was once genuinely asked during a live interview with Sky about a new breakthrough in restoring hand function whether it would be – and I quote – “useful to have my hands back?”. Given brain size and opposable thumbs are the two features that have elevated homo sapiens to the top of the animal tree, it took a superhuman feat of restraint on my part to simply reply politely ‘yes’ as opposed to rolling my eyes violently and shouting obscenities. If you’re really bored one day I challenge you to get dressed with just one hand whilst sitting in bed without moving your legs to give you a small flavor of what it’s like to be quadriplegic. Hint: bloody annoying.
However, wheeling about undressed is generally frowned upon, even in hospitals so dressing practice was something we were encouraged to try if we did have any arm or hand function to work with. I spent many, many mornings wrestling with my T shirt/socks but, for a long time, dressing myself was beyond me and I had to be helped into my clothes by a member of staff. Most of the nurses were female but we did have two male nurses at my second hospital and I was asked, when they were on duty, whether I was happy to be helped to wash and dress by them or whether I wanted to wait for a female nurse to be free. Whilst not impugning their professionalism at all, I was at first adamant that I did not want to be stripped down, flannel washed and then re-dressed by a bloke. It seemed an embarrassment too far and I cringed away from it. However, I soon learned that waiting for a female nurse or HCA could mean being stuck in bed all morning, given staff shortages. Eventually, after several mornings wasted just sitting waiting for female assistance, I resigned myself to being helped by a man instead, reminding myself that the blokes on the ward were coping with nurses of the opposite sex helping them where required without wibbling about it.
I don’t remember much about the eventual washing and dressing experience with the first male nurse other than the fact that, right at the end he told me that I could “jiggle my own bits into my bra”. Given he had just washed and dressed ALL the rest of me, this seemed like the very definition of arbitrary and accordingly became my tweet for the day. However the most memorable dressing episode happened with Nofret.
Nofret was one of an influx of Spanish nurses recruited by the hospital in an attempt to address the severe shortage of qualified nurses from the UK. This isn’t a chapter on the dire state of nursing in the UK so let’s suffice to say that thanks to various shenanigans including the freezing of pay and the downgrading of nursing roles and authority on the shop floor, there is a huge gap in the number of nurses needed and the number actually enrolling and qualifying. Since we were still in a time where Brexit was no more than a twinkle in David Cameron’s eye, our NHS trust had sought to address that staffing lack with qualified European nurses. Nofret had just arrived into the North of England with a firm grasp of all necessary nursing requirements but absolutely none of the English language.
Accordingly she arrived at my bedside for the morning routine one day. We managed hello and how are you, which promptly exhausted most of my knowledge of Spanish with the exception of me being able to ask how her hamster was. For this arcane bit of knowledge I can thank a Spanish language book I perused prior to a trip to Peru, which also, I believe, included teaching me to instruct how I would like said pet rodent cooked. Or perhaps it was a different hamster – either way, lying in bed as I was wearing only a flimsy hospital gown and being about to attempt removing clothing, washing and reapplying clothing, it seemed the height of foolishness to introduce anything about hamsters so I kept that to myself and reverted to English.
Our first hurdle was to work out what I was going to wear. We started well – I gestured towards the cupboard in my room, Nofret opened it and by waving at my legs, feet and top half we acquired leggings, T-shirt and socks. Now we went up a level of difficulty; how to mime pants and a bra. I gestured at my chest like something out of a Carry On film (both hands clutching embonpoint but resisting the temptation to accompany the action with clown car hooter noises) and Nofret got the message immediately. Knickers were slightly trickier – loath to wave too much at my nether regions for both of our sakes, I instead opted to try and mime ‘leggings but smaller’. This did not go well. Nofret understandably interpreted this as me wanting to change the leggings for some shorts. Whilst it was warm in the ward, it was nonetheless still November so I shook my head and attempted to point at the relevant shelf in the cupboard. Unfortunately, as both hands were still curled into fists pointing at all, never mind accurately, was not actually possible so what I actually did was hold out a clenched fist in the direction of the corner of the room. This did not aid the situation. I contemplated my next move and decided that asking for more sangria, which was the last phrase I had up my not yet worn sleeve, was probably not going to help. Luckily Nofret took the initiative and started working her way down the cupboard shelves, waiting for me to nod when she reached the right section.
Then we moved onto the washing – by the end of which I had resolved to urgently contact Berlitz or Lonely Planet and demand they add the following vocab to their Spanish phrasebooks:
Orange does nothing for my complexion
My trousers are on back-to-front
We’re going to need a bigger towel
and just to pass the time – are you going anywhere nice tonight?
TWO HOURS later I was up, washed, dressed and in my chair and both of us were exhausted. I’d like to be able to tell you that my Spanish improved from the experience but this was not the case. What did improve quite remarkably was Nofret’s English. Only a few weeks later I heard her sail into a ward and cheerfully ask a patient “Do you want owt, love?” in a broad West Riding accident. That’s the danger of learning your English in Wakefield.
#Dressing practice today. If you don’t hear from me, I’m lost in my T-shirt. Call for help.