Where there's life
On reception in a critical care High Dependency Unit
Walking up to the hospital, I pass a guy wearing pyjamas, standing in the rain. He has a drain coming from the bandages round his head, pinkish liquid is flowing down the plastic tubing into a collection bottle. He's busy trying to light a cigarette, resting the bottle on top of a waste bin so he has both hands free. And people wonder why they get infections.
I'm amused to see nurse Beth is looking after Mr. Baker and Mrs. Quaker. To her, they are the craniotomy and the endarterectomy, and it takes her till lunchtime to notice she has rhyming patients. Many of the nurses use the patient's first name, but sometimes the turnover is so quick, they may think more in terms of " Bed 7" and " Bed 8." They miss out on the simple pleasure of having a Field opposite Farmer, or the fabulous Jellyman in with Peach and Custard.
The desk at the nurses' station is rather cramped, people are contantly side-stepping each other. A doctor rushes in and, momentarily, his groin is up against my butt. " Oh my God! I'm so sorry..." he stutters, so I say, " Don't spoil it by apologising." That really freaks him out!
Nurse George comes to answer a phone query. He most often ends calls with, " No problem," or, " My pleasure." This conversation drags on, every time he tries to wind up, the caller has another question. Finally, he manages to terminate the interrogation, and in a wonderful slip, says, " No pleasure." He puts the phone down, and asks why I'm laughing.
A patient opposite me keeps staring at the floor beside her bed. " It's there again," she says. Nurse Claire asks, " What's there, Gladys?" The lady points as if it's obvious. " That dog. It keeps coming back." Claire pats her hand and says, " There's no dog, Gladys." The patient remains insistant." Of course there is - it's just flushed the toilet."
One of the patients is beyond help. Yesterday was just a normal day for her, until she collapsed. She's my age, and has two sons the same ages as ours. I try to distance myself from what's going on, but this family's plight gets to me. Her husband is talking to the transplant co-ordinator, as she's a registered organ donor. He asks for a lock of hair as a keepsake. Grandparents are bringing the two lads to say goodbye to their mum. I have to excuse myself, and head for door, thankful that my colleaugues do the kindest thing, and don't offer any sympathy. That would be the last straw.
" Ward 21, ward clerk, can I help?" The caller responds, " Oh, hello, is that the High Fidelity Unit?"
A couple of visitors busy themselves by eating the patient's fruit, one of them is spitting orange pips under the bed. The nurse asks him to stop. " You wouldn't just spit on the floor at home, would you?" she asks. He looks puzzled and says," Yeah. Anyway, you've got cleaners."
We have an emergency admission, who lives two hours away. Her ten-year-old son is in the waiting room, showing other bemused visitors card tricks. There's a room vacant in the hostel provided by the League of Friends, and I take the husband over to show him where they can stay, at least for tonight. He sighs, saying," It makes everything so much harder, being away from home." Thinking of my Dad, in hospital three hours away, I say, " Distance can complicate things." As soon as the shift ends, I'll be packing a case and heading off, becoming a long distance visitor myself, swapping one kind of life in critical care for another.
"Squeeze my hand , Bernie. That's good. Now let go, Bernie. Let go of my hand. Bernie, let go! Ouch!"
The usually serene nurse Sally rushes, red-faced, to Sister and asks for help. Her patient, Alex, is semi-conscious and unable to talk. The man's wife has climbed on the bed beside him, and has her hands around his throat. " She won't get off!" Sally says urgently. " She's got this weird look in her eyes." Sister hurries away as the intercom buzzes and a visitor asks to see Alex. " I'm his wife," she says. Hmmm. Interesting. I tell her," The nurse is busy with him just now. Can you take a seat in the waiting room?" Oh boy.
Nurse Meg asks her patient if he knows who's the Prime Minister. The appropriate answer is given. Then Meg says, " Can you tell me the capital of London?" Err, do what? A passing doctor says, " I think you just gave the game away."
It's been a hard shift, but that's life in critical care. On the way home, I stop to buy a few things. The guy on the till flings items through as I struggle with awkward carrier bags, then he asks for the money. I'm not confrontational, but am tired and feeling stressed. " You're the first person in this shop not to offer help with my bags," I say calmly. He gazes off into space, so I say, " I do object to being asked for my money while I'm still trying to pack things away." He suddenly meets my eye and shakes himself, saying," Oh, I'm so sorry. I've just been turned down for a transfer nearer home, my mum's really ill." His lower lip trembles. " You've no idea what it's like..." You think? Dear God, now I've made a cashier cry. Taxi!