Of all the impressions, it is that of the finger nails that remains the clearest…
This week my wife, Patricia, was in hospital for a day procedure. Check-in in the morning, check out in the evening. In between, the joys of a general anesthetic and a little pain relief. The hospital ward where I waited for her, and with her, was a place of particular sensations and impressions, as all hospital wards in the past have been. One tends, however, to cast them aside at the last hand wash station and the automated rotating exit door and, by the time you’ve hit the car park, the likelihood is that you have left them behind altogether.
But they are peculiar things and perhaps worth jotting down...
It’s hard to be the guy waiting around a six bed ladies ward for your wife to return from surgery. Not as hard as being in the theatre, one might argue, but still hard. You don’t want to be in the way, to invade anybody’s privacy, but everywhere is in the way and nobody has sufficient privacy. The crossword puzzle is an enigma worthy of Bletchley Park and your book is a binder filled with worthless scratchings. Tea comes around but it’s not for you. A radio is too distant to hear. A television too angled to view.
A woman comes up the corridor, ringing a small bell with patient regularity. This has an ancient ritualistic feel which is entirely incongruous among the machine beeps and the digital displays. The bell is an unknown quantity. Is it a warning of some passing contagious disease? Is it a call to a meal? The latter is the closest to the truth for it is a nun in civilian disguise, alerting the patients to the arrival of holy communion from the morning mass.
I think about how I would hate this bell if I was here confined to a bed. The ‘oldness’ of it. But then I think of the people to whom it most be a comfort of sorts and I make my peace with it and smile at the nun as she glides serenely past me.
Patricia is wheeled back in. She is awake and not awake, all at the same time. Over the weekend, she was at a nice hotel with her sisters, celebrating a birthday. Everybody was submitting themselves to some sort of spa treatment but Trish, not being in the mood for pummeling, settled for an unheard-of manicure and a nail gloss of brightest perkiest pink. The nail varnish had to be removed again, two days later, to satisfy the requirements of the surgical theatre. Now, as she sleeps/wakes, I notice the pink remnants of the pretty varnish, clinging to the edges of her fingernails.
Time passes. A blood pressure machine farts its pressure cuff into life periodically, beeps a reading, then hisses itself flaccid once more. A saline drip dispenses its wares, oh so painfully slowly, into a cannula on the back of her wrist. I think how lucky I am. Fifty Two years old and I have never needed a cannula. I think this situation cannot easily pertain for very much longer. My genes and my wicked sugary ways will catch up with me soon enough.
As she dozes, I note the other people in the ward. Two are day-cases like she is. Both came back earlier from surgery and both are now alert and clearly casting around mentally for the quickest way to get out. One of the ladies gets regular mobile phone calls and her ringtone is that one that sounds like an old phone from the fifties. It seems in keeping with the ward curtains and the communion bell.
One ancient lady tries to nab every nurse who passes and they dodge her as best they can while answering her queries with kindness and empathy. Someone tells me that she clearly repeats her queries, all day, every day, with unerring regularity.
Another lady sleeps through her evident pain and snores. Her snores sound like words and I try to decipher what they are but they remain, like her dreams, outside of my reach.
The young girl in the opposite bed is overwhelmed with family visitors and a gentle tattooed boyfriend.
Two nurses visit now-sleeping Patricia and make copious notes in charts and folders. They whisper to each other that her 'sats' are visibly dropping and a red LED display confirms this with a 93, 92, 91, 90 countdown. An oxygen mask is quickly applied, without any sign of alarm, and the sats promptly climb back up again 91, 92, 93, 94… The rest of my time there is coloured by the numbers on that machine which, thankfully, stays high even after the mask is removed.
At last she is fully awake and tea from a tiny teapot and toast is consumed, breaking a day long fast. Another hour or two and we are free to go. We leave the old ladies and the young girl to their evening together. The others have already gone.
Four days later, it is the finger nails that remain the most vivid impression. It's almost as if they were a metaphor for the things we must give up when we need to be in a hospital, for the things we simply cannot hold on to.