One of the main things about being in a real hospital as opposed to watching it on the telly is that you are there being ill/seriously injured/at your most vulnerable whilst being in extremely close proximity to lots of other people who are in the same boat. For some reason this never happens to people in programmes; they always seem to have their own, spacious, private, quiet and well appointed room. Here they are visited only by their loved ones and sympathetic medical staff, the latter of which do not look like they have just done a 12 hour night shift and can’t wait to go home. Being an only child and having, since reaching adulthood, then foolishly elected to sleep with just one other person at a time, spending 24 hours a day but particularly the nights, with at least three other people, was quite difficult for me to get used to. My acclimatisation was not aided by the lack of privacy. I tried out three different wards during my time at the NHS’s pleasure, each one containing me and three other inmates. The beds all had flimsy curtains that could be drawn around them but each bed was only a few feet apart from the others and thin curtains do not stop the dissemination of sound or, worse, smells. So, whilst it was true that people could not actually see what was going on in a bed, the visual lack could easily be made up for in vivid imagination fuelled by the other emanations for the senses.
At first, new patients try to preserve some sense of dignity by speaking in lowered tones but after a few days they cease this futile struggle, recognising it for the lost cause it is when everyone else around them is discussing their most intimate bodily functions in ringing tones. I learned this lesson early on when one of my ward mates was a paraplegic lady who had come into hospital due to chronic constipation. Many years post injury due to a car crash, she was both an inspiration and a warning to a newly injured patient like myself. The inspiration came from her independence and her cheerful disposition, the warning from her condition. As I lay opposite in my bed I became an involuntary front row audience to her drama. Several times a day a doctor or nurse would bustle in and enquire loudly as to whether she had had a bowel movement yet. For the first few days the answer to that was ‘no’ so then there was an ongoing discussion about laxatives, diet and exercise. Later, after she had been plied with various noxious substances and they started to take effect, she developed a violent flatulence which she was helpless to control and which was then also discussed loudly although, to be fair, in these conversations the medical staff could have been shouting just to be heard over the noise. After this stage she then had to clamber out of bed and visit our attached bathroom, into which she was accompanied every time by a minimum of three people who went with her to assess performance or lack thereof.
During my time in hospital my fellow inmates were both a source of support, company and reassurance and an infuriating annoyance, depending on what they were doing at the time. My first memorable neighbour was one I christened The Fruit Lady. I encountered her after my first few days in the high dependency ward – you know, the one into which I arrived, refused to sleep for three nights, had two midnight panic attacks, nearly suffocated and then took to banging a spoon against the bars of my bed in the early hours for the best part of a week. I shudder to think what they called me.
Anyway, The Fruit Lady was so named because one evening she took to calling out for fruit in the middle of the night. This was done loudly and unspecifically but very repeatedly for several hours. ‘I just want some fruit’ she pleaded, ‘Please can I just have some fruit?’ and ‘Fetch my daughter, she’ll get me some fruit’. With the experience I later gained about the effect of an infection and high temperature on elderly people (a carer once told me that she realised one old lady was suffering from an infection when she arrived to find her sitting in bed clutching a feather duster. When asked what the feather duster was for the lady replied, matter of factly, ‘To hit the crocodiles with.’) I can now guess that she was probably delirious but only a week or so conscious at the time I was torn between feeling immensely sorry for her and just wishing that someone would give her some damn fruit so we could all go to sleep. After the second night of fruit calling The Fruit Lady was finally wheeled in her bed out into the corridor where her pleas could still be heard at a distance. Around 5am the calling stopped. Later that morning I asked the nurse on duty whether The FL had finally received her fruit. “No,’ she replied ‘She died.’ It was a sobering reminder that one minute you can be calling for fruit and the next dead as a doornail. The gap between one and the other is much thinner than we think and nowhere so much as in a hospital.
A small aside on the thinness of that veil – a brief chat with some nurses revealed that many of them had had weird experiences around dying patients or in wards where people had recently died. One told me of sitting late at night with one elderly patient at the end of her life who had been muttering unintelligibly but who suddenly focused on something or someone just behind the nurse and started to converse clearly with them/it. ‘What was it?’ I asked. “I don’t know’ replied the nurse. ‘All the hair stood up on my neck and I was too scared to turn around.’
Meanwhile back in the HD ward The Fruit Lady was replaced by Clucking Man and the fun really started. Clucking Man’s actual name was John and he had been involved in a terrible car crash. The driver had suffered multiple injuries but of a type, although serious, he would recover from in time and walk out of the hospital to resume his life. John, on the other hand, had broken his neck high enough up that he was completely paralysed from the chin down, being able to move nothing but his head – and his mouth. To start with he had been unable to talk so some bright spark had taught him to loudly click his tongue against the roof of his mouth to get attention or help. Unfortunately for everyone, he decided to employ this loud clucking noise ALL the time. All day, all night, all through the next day…and the next night. To start with our nurses went to see what he needed but it appeared that he either didn’t want anything more than to make them walk over to his bed or he put in requests that I couldn’t hear but that elicited responses much along the lines of the Meatloaf song – ‘I’ll do anything for love but I won’t do that’.
Clucking Man, as he became known, was also a mystery since he appeared to have no next of kin. He refused to name anyone when asked and nobody had come to see him since his accident or contacted the police about his disappearance from life. The hospital staff put in a lot of effort to try and trace family or friends for him not only on the basis that he was a young man who must have somebody missing him but also because the bald truth was he was never going to be able to look after himself again with no movement and would require specialist care for the rest of his life. Repeatedly they drew complete blanks until, strangely, it turned out that the matron of the spinal ward was a distant cousin and she managed to get in contact with some people who claimed to know him. A few days later two of these so-called friends turned up at his bedside. Earwigging for all I was worth, I strained to hear their conversation. After some perfunctory hellos and how are yous, the two men went straight into questioning him about some money that he had supposedly had in his pocket at the time of the crash. It rapidly transpired that they were not interested at all in Clucking Man’s welfare but only in the £500 they wanted off him. John either had no idea where the money was or refused to say so the men left after 15 minutes leaving the hospital still with a gravely injured patient who appeared to have absolutely no-one who cared about him.
That said, he was not a terribly likeable man. He tried to get attention from the nurses all the time and they rapidly got tired of him loudly clucking away and calling them to his bedside for no reason. After a several visits, when they ascertained nothing was wrong (apart from the catastrophically broken neck and paralysis, obvs), they took to ignoring him so John rapidly switched up his tactics and took to shouting ‘Help! Heelllpp!!’ instead. This produced a few more bedside turns from the staff before they went back to trying to ignore him again so he then expanded it to ‘Help! Help! I’m dying!!’. Technically one could argue that this was true – aren’t we all – but, hooked up to machines monitoring his vital signs 24/7 in a high dependency hospital ward, there was plenty of real time data to baldly contradict his claims. ‘No, Clucking Man, you are not, unfortunately, about to die. Observe your steady and regular heartbeat, your excellent oxygenation stats and all your bloods are looking good.’
In fact, he was probably the heartiest in the ward as he took being ignored as a signal to simply redouble his efforts so we spent the rest of that day with ‘Help! Help! I’m dyyyiiinnnggg!’ ringing loudly in our ears at five minute intervals. He didn’t respond to any sort of request to be quiet so eventually a nurse strode over and administered something which knocked him out into a, thankfully, silent sleep.
Clucking Man snoozed gently through that night and most of the next morning with all of his neighbours basking in the bliss of a quiet ward. We had breakfast, we dozed, we took drugs and got stuck with more needles. Some of us (ie me) had physios stick things down their throat and suck out loads of gunk and got pummelled and then attached to a nebuliser. It was almost enjoyable. Into this peaceful idyll came Somebody Important. I’ve no idea who they actually were but they were wearing an expensive suit and showing four other Important People around the ward as one of the hospital’s equipment and capacity highlights. Expensive watches flashed and pearls clinked as they looked around curiously at the beds and machines and inmates. They nodded sagely as Somebody Important talked through what the ward was for, what it could do, how it was able to cater to even the most severely injured and keep them safe and well. Finally Somebody Important turned to our nurses. ‘Everything ok in here?’ he asked. Possessing an incredible sense of timing, it was precisely at this point that Clucking Man woke up. ‘Help! Help! I’m dying!’ he yelled. The Important People looked positively terrified and agog all at the same time, presumably expecting to witness some top Casualty style action as these crack nursing staff leapt to aid this patient. Our senior nurse sister smiled serenely. ‘Oh, yes.’ she replied ‘Everything’s fine’ with neither her nor her colleague so much as looking in Clucking Man’s direction at the bottom of the ward. He increased the volume – ‘HELP!!!! I’M DYING!! I’M DYIINNGG!!!’. Important heads swivelled confused between his bed and the nurses, who still didn’t move. So Clucking Man went for broke. ‘SUCK MY C***!!!!’ he bellowed. The Important People were hastily bundled out of the ward.
After this piece de resistance, Clucking Man was dispatched to his own room several doors down where he could be shut away. I promise you that weeks later I was wheeled past his door and could still hear, albeit faintly, ‘Help, help, I’m dying’ wafting on the breeze.