To my immense disappointment, I only kept my private room at the second hospital for about five weeks. To be fair, I had been warned that it was likely that, with the arrival of a new patient requiring isolation until they were clear of any MRSA, I would be kicked out onto a general ward but I did note that there were ladies who arrived both before and after me who kept their rooms for the duration of their stay. I was extremely envious of those people because, as I have mentioned before, sleeping in a ward is the opposite of restful or private.
I’ve already introduced you the Fruit Lady, Clucking Man and The Inanimate One; now please may I present My Neighbour. Yeah, not the most descriptive or imaginative name but, clearly, I was still in shock at even getting a neighbour after five weeks of private room bliss so that’s what she was named and stayed.
My Neighbour was a fairly elderly lady with the most extraordinary ability to carry on conversations for hours with her husband whom she called several times a week (as well as him regularly visiting). Her record – yes, I was timing her – came to three hours and seven minutes and the topics ranged from such scintillating fare as how she liked to have her hair done all the way through to what she was having for tea so it actually felt like she’d been talking for much longer. She was lucky that I was incarcerated in my wheelchair and therefore unable to sneak across to her bed, take the phone off her and then beat her viciously round the head with it. THREE HOURS AND SEVEN MINUTES!!!! I will never get that time back.
On the other hand, the devotion between her and her husband was touching to observe, even if their conversations were utterly inane. It turned out that her story was a fascinating one – she had had a stroke several years earlier which had paralysed her as well as leaving her with brain damage that meant she had no short term memory. She had spent a long time recovering from the stroke and had regained most of her movement but the lack of memory meant that she couldn’t be left on her own so her husband had taken on the role of caring for her 24/7. As a result of this, one day when he had needed to do some trimming of trees on their farm, he had gathered up his chainsaw, a ladder and his wife and taken them all to the woods. He climbed up a tree to saw off branches whilst My Neighbour wandered about underneath him – presumably talking about the weather or what she’d seen on telly – which meant, unfortunately, she was right underneath him when he fell out the tree and landed on her. They both broke their backs – he in a minor, cracked vertebrae sort of way, her in a catastrophic, damaged the spinal cord, rendered her permanently paralysed sort of way.
By now in her late seventies, the chances of her regaining any material function were extremely low. All of us in the spinal unit were accorded one hour of physio five days a week for our rehab but I never saw My Neighbour come within two hundred yards of the physio room in the months I shared a ward with her. It could have been that they considered the chances of her having a pretty fragile skeleton were high and therefore it wasn’t the best idea to have her spend hours learning commando crawling as I was doing – just in case the Marines need to get their recruitment numbers up. I may be paralysed from the shoulders down but I’ll have you know I can still do a mean doggy paddle and make my way horizontally across a gym mat at a rapid-ish pace.
Despite this bleak outlook, My Neighbour remained remarkably cheerful – probably because she forgot the prognosis about five minutes after receiving it. As a result of her lack of short-term memory, she lived almost entirely in the present. She ingested a vast amount of sugary crap almost incessantly with lip-smacking gusto that meant that when the nurses came to help her clean her teeth at bedtime, she remained in bed whilst her teeth and the nurse made their way to the sink on the other side of the room. One day whilst watching adverts on her small, portable TV, she grabbed her call button and summoned a healthcare assistant. “Have you ever heard of them Quavers?” she enquired of the slightly nonplussed HCA, who had probably sped down the corridors to the flashing red light over the ward door expecting something more, well, urgent. And medical. And preferably, given how busy they were, necessary.
“Er” replied the HCA “Quavers? Like the ones you eat?”
“Yes” replied My Neighbour “Can you get me a pack?”
Astonishingly – and very kindly – the HCA did exactly that, raiding one of those healthily stocked, hospital vending machines with her own money. My Neighbour noisily despatched the packet at speed whilst I debated escalating her to pickled onion flavour Monster Munch just for the comedy value. In the end, I decided against it because she already had enough bowel issues and the ingredients list on the back of a pack of Monster Munch may be what one could call ‘extensive’ but, even so, it doesn’t include fibre. Or any actual food, for that matter.
Her general appetite for life and talking extended even into times where she was unconscious. At night she muttered away incessantly in her sleep; on one memorable occasion quite clearly whispering “I want to kiss you”. Next door, in my own bed, I fervently hoped she really was asleep and not talking to me, nonetheless feeling pretty disturbed.
Last but not least, she was even able to contemplate the loss of her home with remarkable equanimity. The farm where she and her husband lived was completely inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair. Therefore, like many in the ward, they faced having to sell it quickly before her discharge date came due and finding an adapted bungalow, which are extremely thin on the ground not to mention eye-waveringly expensive. One of my other ward mates was genuinely discharged having had a hospital bed and commode set up in her kitchen – which was the only room she could get into with her wheelchair. She was expected to live entirely in that kitchen for several months as one of the ‘lucky ones’ whose house could be adapted. Other cannier inmates gamed the NHS system, learning that if they kept rejecting council supplied properties for various reasons, they could stay on the ward. One man became so good at this, he lived the best part of an additional six months in our spinal ‘hotel’ before he was forcibly ejected, I think to an old people’s home despite the fact he was no more than about thirty-two.
Before they had to move out and after several months in hospital, My Neighbour was allowed out to say goodbye to her home and discuss what she wanted to do with all the furniture and effects that couldn’t come with them. Much fuss was made of this temporary homecoming. When she returned I asked her how it had gone. “I was only sick in my hand” she replied. Words for us all to live by.