Friday, 19 February 2016

Une Semaine de Bonté: A week in Papworth
Who are we? Staff (1)

All names changed.

At the top, beyond the very top, hovering over the landscape and appearing at unexpected moments like a glamorous creature, the surgeon, Mr Z. He is impossibly handsome, (he’s very handsome, said Clarissa), his dark hair flopping over his forehead. He looks like the leading man in a Bollywood movie. He works very hard cutting and grafting over long hours then he vanishes. Mr Z quickly became an object of fantasy for me chiefly because I saw him neither before the operation nor after, but then he’d arrive suddenly, day or night, behind my shoulder or turn up as I was looking elsewhere, to ask, All right? listen a moment then answer, Good, before vanishing again. I imagined him, at one extreme like a Miltonic Prince of Darkness at another as  a gigantic luminous moth.

Hospital does that. Everyone attached to it becomes an object of potential worship. There are plenty of numinous creatures to encounter. Maybe it is because they all carry some sort of authority while the patient carries none.

I had heard there was a Hungarian nurse on the ward, or rather there was a nurse with a Hungarian name. Atilla appeared one night when I needed more oxygen, more nebuliser. My cough was particularly painful. A young man, he - having spotted the Hungarian surname - spoke Hungarian to me from the start. Only this was in the middle of night and speaking Hungarian at such a time, in such distress, seemed like a test of some sort. I managed and so it went on with Atillla, whether he was on day or night duty. It transpired he was from the same part of Hungary-Romania as my mother, Transylvania and, for a while, I was wrongly assuming he came from the very same town.

Atilla was so much the Hungarian in his way of speaking (his English was excellent), his body language and his emotional distance, it was immediately recognisable to me. I think of the manner as the national shrug, a kind of yeh, so what issued to the world at large. What it says is I may be a waiter and you a customer but I’m as good a man as you and, damn you, I have no intention of being servile. The customer is not only not always right, he is quite possibly an idiot too. This is not coldness or indifference - they behave the same way to each other. This was the way we played it, Atilla and I, and it worked very well. Any time he appeared there was an interlude of Hungarian chat. Since he was the only Hungarian in the place he will have welcomed it. I asked him at one point how my Hungarian sounded to him. Very good, he said, it’s just your accent. In Hungary British, in Britain Hungarian. This is not altogether a disaster but it leaves one in a position of extended incongruity. Atilla has been here eight years. There are Hungarians in Huntingdon, he tells me. There is something almost hallucinatory about that sentence. It's as if he had said There are Unicorns in Upminster.

I am definitely frail. Everything is an effort.

Another hallucination, very brief but oddly insistent. Arms. There are two sets, one olive-brown like the arms of Sofia, my Greek nurse, the other much darker, African. I can see beads of sweat on them. The sweat turns to dew, beautiful, erotic, paradisal. I don’t have an African nurse. I see this very clearly for a few seconds and imagine it's real, then the image vanishes.

Sofia is one of a number of pretty nurses. If Mr Z can be handsome why shouldn’t Sofia be pretty? She carries her slender body straight and moves directly from place to place, thrusting her bottom out in a more pronounced way than anyone else as she goes.. She is not callypigian just trim. She misses Greece. She misses its weather. Greece, she feels, has been very badly treated. She will go home when she can. She has a partner who is also here at the hospital. It was he who wanted to come. She too is hallucination. It's just that she is also real.

Crisp little footsteps. Sofia is on her way.

Atilla and Mark are the only two male staff nurses in the place. Mark looked very young, hardly more than a boy. He lived at home. He was less prone to conversation than Atilla. He and Atilla made a pair of laddish ambassadors for men among women. Among the other women there is Molly, general nurse, late middle age, who likes a smile and later washes me, tucking my penis away under a towel.  There is little Honoria from the Philippines, guarded and a touch nervous, but more experienced. She spent ten minutes tying to unwind the lines attaching me to the various monitors and supplies.

Nor could I forget Luiza who was Spanish and had beautiful stern eyes. If you don’t drink three glasses of water in the next hour I shall be very angry, she told me. I wouldn’t have wanted to make her angry. She had had some suffering in private life. She might have had to tend to a severely ill mother. I'm not sure. I am not entirely sure she went into any detail. I douibt it.

The difference in relations between patient and patient and between patient and staff is that there are far more of the latter coming and going, so their appearances, as orderly as they are to themselves, always have a flittering quality for the patient. Patients talk to each other at times of rest. The visit of a nurse or doctor is always on business. Theirs is not quite as flittering  a presence as surgeon, Mr Z, but sometimes, in the early days, it is a little like the fairy photographs that fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (see top). You believe in them, that is all that matters.

1 comment:

Tim Love said...

I've avoided writing about such experiences in the past, mostly because life/death scenes seemed too easy (or rather, too difficult to evaluate). However, in the 5 years that my son's been going through med school my late father went through experiences rather like yours, and my cousin's daughter in law had a heart-transplant at Papworth only a couple of months ago. We've had other scarey stuff too. We've watched from several angles the sociology and discourse of life in the wards. How to read between the lines.

One night I slept just off the ward where my father was. I noticed the sudden camaraderie, as if 2 people thousands of miles from home had met by chance, and discovered that they grew up in the same village. Or perhaps a wartime analogy is more apt - sometimes my father woke in the morning to find the bed opposite him empty. A widower, he welcomed the social interactions, describing one of the nurses as a lovely man. Just before one op my father asked him what a football score was. The nurse was there when he woke afterwards to tell him.

For some people it's tempting to turn to poetry at such moments. Alone in a waiting room last year, awaiting a diagnosis of a close one, I was reading "Sandgrain and hourglass" by Penelope Shuttle. Even in that situation I felt that Shuttle's "I thought my weeping days were over and done, but these tears are fresh as paint" failed, even if intended ironically. Time for her to tackle a new subject, I thought. But every so often amongst the 120 (!) pages she came up with something like "Every day Grief sets me my lesson ... surely after such coaching and cramming/ I can't fail". Can't say I like Larkin's Aubade either, though I know many people do. It seems to me that in much of the most effective writing, the fashionable poetisms drop off. Indeed, the best bits work as well in prose, which is one reason why I welcomed and admired your postings. My attempt as a mere observer, an illustrated article called "Poetry and Death", appeared recently at

To add to the mix here's the Peterloo winner from years ago, by Chris Woods. It's called "Coronary Care". I've always liked it.

Nurses thump my pillow,
bring it back to life,
turn down sheets
and pages of notes,

murmur to themselves
like the machines
that graph my rise
and fall in light.

Rubber bracelets
on wrist and ankle,
a cuff round my arm
that inflates and you,

my red balloon,
lighter than life,
ready to ascend
so easily to heaven.

My bruised red apple
in a bony crate,
you are more delicious
than ever now.

Sweet heart,
you were always there.
Such love, I took
for granted. Don't go.