Thursday, 18 February 2016
Une Semaine de Bonté: A Week in Papworth
Who are we? 1. Patients
Who are we? 1. Patients
From here on, when talking of specific people, I have changed their names. Being a patient is not a solipsistic experience: it is a social one. This fascinated me as much as my own condition. The next post will be about staff.
The beds on the ward were in rooms of four or six, the lot arranged around a central hub. There is a constant demand for beds so beds will usually be full. My room contained four beds. Patients come and go so by the end of the week I had been in conversation with six or seven different people, These people are not always in a condition or mood to talk but conversation is vital. After some shy, wary, and indeed exhausted silence from the new arrivals an easy banter develops among the old lags. Nor is it just banter. The talk can take a serious turn. We know so little of each other conversation can range far and wide. I was chiefly interested in listening. After all I would not have met these people under other circumstances and would probably not meet them again. If you want to hear the world talk, I told myself, don’t talk across it.
In intensive care one sees only shadows. There are conversations that swim in and out of focus like the one involving the old man and his fear of anticipated pain. My first social experience was when I was moved to P Ward where Clarissa and Helen visited me. This was, as I remember, on Sunday. Opposite my bed was a slightly older man I’ll call Brian. Brian was waiting for his operation but he kept getting calls from home informing hm of the football score. Chelsea were playing Milton Keynes in the FA Cup and went on to win 5-1. He was a Chelsea supporter, born down the Fulham Road. I asked him what went wrong this season. He didn’t want to talk about it. Just pleased we won tonight, he answered.
Brian was a milkman. It had been a dreadful two years for him. First he lost his wife then developed prostrate cancer, now this! He bore up very well. He was essentially a cheeerful man longing to be cheerful again. He smiled as he spoke. I was to see him as I was leaving five days later. His operation too had gone well. We had had few chances to talk that night because he vanished into the operating theatre. I felt a great affection for him, the way I have always done for workers of various kinds. His children were on hand to help him.
Next to Brian, and also occasionally glancing across at me - there is a lot of occasional glancing across - was Dennis whom I got to know more thoroughly since he was there the whole time. He was in his seventies, a highly educated practical man, a rebellious One-Nation Tory (or so I assumed), the product of a Dominican boarding school and the army. Dennis read a good deal in the best spirit he could because, unlike me, he was in real pain all the time, coughing and gasping for air. He had been in busienss and had two grown up children. He and his wife lived in a house with three acres and walked two energetic large dogs. Dominican school prepared him for the army, he said, and had been a valuable part of his life throughout.
The trouble was no one could quite decide what specific operation Dennis needed. He had been in hospital since August The most conrete news he received while I was there was that he’d have an operation on the 12th, a week after my own discharge. He was known to have emphysema but there was some complication beyond that. The uncertainty meant two different teams of surgeons would have to be assembled on the day in case they found two different problems. The delay was hurting him. You’re killing me day by day, he complained to the consultant when he came to visit.
Shortly after my own admission a new man was given the bed next to mine. Eighty years old, Den (also Dennis) had been an agricultural labourer and, before that, a squaddie. Den and Dennis hit it off together rather well because Den, like Dennis, had served in a tank regiment, but there the resemblance ended. Den was, to put it as simply as I can, a good tempered, funny, quite warm-hearted, working-class, Labour-voting Fascist. Adolf Hitler got a few things right, he told me on one occasion. Homosexuals should be castrated, he confided another time. It ain’t natural. He knew his children disagreed with him on most political issues. His wife was completely incapacitated and could only move her head. The children came to see him. They .were clearly fond of their dad.
I could have asked Den what Hitler got right, and, while we were at it, why one should castrate anyone for their sexuality but I didn’t. I was more interested in him than he in me. He had never been on a holiday outside England. he took four sugars with both tea and coffee. He liked the plainest food imaginable. But it was perfectly possible to talk to him al ittle about his own life. His horrible views were partly the product of an obstinacy in which he took great pride. No amount of soft soap was going to take away his right to think just what he liked.
One day Den and Dennis were having a conversation about meals and what you called them. What is breakfast, what elevenses, what lunch, what tea etc?. This is the class system in a nutshell, I interjected. They both laughed at this and agreed but - in hospital at least - they saw themselves as equals within their spheres. Under the circumstances, under the gaze of mortality we were all equal.
A new patient had been brought in to fill the empty bed opposite me. It was a younger man, forty-two years old; a Kashmiri-born pastry-cook, now chef, called Ghafar, Gaff for short. He was quiet a long time, dozing off now and then. He had had something like a heart attack and they had brought him in for tests. Gaff did become more talkative later but he never led the conversation.. He had other resources: his brothers, neat fashionable dressers in leather. They’d talk quietly among themselves but blossomed out near the end when it turned out that there nothing was wrong with Gaff.
Gaff cleary identified himself as British once the subject turned to history and politics. The British Empire was folly, a disgrace, said Dennis. We shouldn’t interfere in other places. The Americans are a blight. They ruin everything they touch.. For the sake of conversation I put the colonial view that there had always been empires, some more humane than the rest, and that once having had an empire it is not so easy to turn it off like a tap. Gaff was busily nodding along, saying nothing. When asked about the troubles of Kashmir he told us it is essentially a peaceful place and that it was full of various religions including Christians who all got on fine.
Dennis could have gone private, he said, but preferred to support the NHS, even though, he thought, the NHS was falling to pieces under the strain of people like ourselves. Best to privatise what one can, the advantage of privatisation involving competition and a resultant fall in costs, whereas centralised bureaucracies are no more than state monopolies serving their own interests. I argued that privatisation, when confined to a few hands, is likely to be exploitative, keen on quick profit, liable to corruption and asset stripping. Dennis ddn’t disagree. There was no loss of temper, It would have done us physical harm to lose it. One could have a serious conversation with Dennis having developed substantial respect for his stoicism in the face of continuous pain. Besides, we were both interested in the view of the other. We both wished the NHS well.
Gaff would listen to such conversations and nod along. When he did talk he talked about Kashmir but the, to my suprise, he began to talk very knowledgably about Hungarian cuisine, of which he was especially fond. He did not eat hospital meals though they would have served him halal food had he asked for it. He ate what his brothers brought in daily. His business and residence was in Peterborough which is not so far away. He wouldn’t touch hospital coffee.
Gaff’s brother was a regular visitor. On the day Gaff was to be discharged he brought in Gaff’s two young children whom he encouraged to shake hands with me, before he introduced himself to me. Have you read the Quran, he asked. Bits, I said. What nobody uderstands, he said, is that Islam is the religion of peace.
Thank you, I said. He smiled back then they were on their way.