I promised you some insight into my experience of the ward and I've written a piece about it. It doesn't give the whole experiece, but it's entirely true and will hopefully show you some of the craziness of it, and why I was so desperate to get out of there. Before I paste 'Walls Have Ears' in here I want to say that while the place was utterly loony, the general care I received was okay. So anyway, here it is (with apologies for the formatting, but I can't seem to keep it the same as in a Word document):
Walls Have Ears
‘Harold? Harold! Are you under the bed? ... Get out from there. Come and get your fish, your chips, and your pudding. Or do you want sausage? ... Harold?’
It was supposedly a respiratory ward, but shut behind the curtains in the corner of this old-fashioned nightingale ward, I listened to those around me and it was evident that most of the other patients who lined the walls like shabby ornaments – relics of better times – were suffering from dementia.
‘Lemons! Nurse! We need lemons!’
I couldn’t imagine what purpose an elderly hospital patient would have for a lemon, let alone an urgency for them, unless of course Harold had emerged and required lemon with his fish. But there was little time to contemplate before I heard the next bizarre question.
‘Nurse, is it all right if I get into the wardrobe?’
After only a short pause, and with almost a tone of distraction as though the request was far from unusual, the nurse replied, ‘Yes lovey, that’s fine, except that you’re in hospital and you’ve left your wardrobe at home.’
‘Oh,’ responded the voice from a couple of beds down to my left, ‘Never mind. I’ll wait until I’m home.’
‘By the way, Jeanette, that was your daughter on the phone.’
‘Which one?’ asked the same voice as had wanted to get into the wardrobe.
‘The one in Scotland. She sends her love and says she’ll come down with the family next week.’
‘That’s Eileen. She’s my main daughter.’
Her main daughter? Did she have another, back-up daughter? How would it feel to know that you were only second or even third in line when it came to a hierarchy of daughters? Thankfully this wasn’t something I’d ever have to worry about as an only daughter, but in days of fragility and insecurity should I have thought about the possibility of back-up children I may well have worried about not being a main child.
The clamour continued, with telephones ringing incessantly, the nurse call bell hooting like a muffled fog horn, seemingly never answered, and a chorus of elderly ladies calling out the names of those I presumed were husbands, sons, mothers, daughters, fathers, friends.
‘Mark!’ It was the voice that had previous called out for Harold.
‘Dorothy, there isn’t anyone here called Mark.’
‘I know. Mark!’
‘If you know there’s no-one here called Mark then why are you shouting for him?’
‘Because I want him to come here,’ with which she must have pointed to the health care assistant.
‘But he’s not called Mark. He’s called David.’
‘I know he’s called David. Do you think I’m stupid? I’m not going to call him David, though. I’m calling him Mark.’
‘David’s a poncey name. I like Mark better ... Mark! Come here, Mark.’
With a quiver of laughter in his voice, David asked what Dorothy wanted.
‘I want you to come here. I want you to see that Harold gets out from under the bed, and I want you to tell that Alex that from now on I’ll be calling him Frank. Oh, and while you’re down seeing to Harold, ask him to start thinking about what we should call our twin boys.’
‘Your twin boys? You haven’t got any children, Dorothy.’
‘I know, but we might yet, and what if we have twins. We’ll need names. Boys names. They’re bound to be boys. Cecil, I think. Tell Harold, Cecil, or Sebastian. Or maybe Robert. Wait! No, tell Harold, Umberto. And also, get this bloody cat off me.’
‘Cat? There isn’t a cat.’
‘There is in my imagination. Get it off me! It’s biting me!’
‘Er, okay ... Come here, cat ... Leave Dorothy alone...’
‘Don’t just walk away, young man. Get the cat off me, and tell Harold to put Christopher on the list. Have you got that? Make sure you put Christopher on the list. And Philip. What about Henry? And Peter? No, don’t put Peter on the list. Oh, and while you’re getting Harold, tell him we’re definitely not having David. Go on now, Mark, bugger off with that cat and don’t let it have Harold’s fish. Mind, if I hear that he’s had Harold’s fish I’ll be coming to slap you round the arms and the legs for being a naughty boy. D’you hear me, Mark? Do you?’
A rather timid, ‘Yes,’ could just be heard over the holler from a nurse further down the ward proclaiming that bed nine had a sore bottom.
‘What was that?’ enquired the nurse tending to the patient in bed twenty, opposite me.
‘Bed nine. Edna. Sore bum.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I thought, ‘can nothing be private in this place?’ I felt sorry for Edna, not only because she obviously had a pressure sore that would be causing her pain, but also because the lack of privacy meant a lack of dignity. Dignity is hard enough to come by as a hospital in-patient without having it shouted down the open ward that you have a sore bottom.
When the doctor later came to see June in the bed next to me he asked her if she was moving her bowels as usual. Dorothy shouted out from across the ward, ‘Oh p-lease, doctor, do you have to? Some of us are trying to rest. We don’t want to hear about the woman’s toilet habits.’ I was warming to Dorothy and her spirited outbursts, and thought that while she obviously had some dementia, remnants of the feisty woman she’d obviously been were shining through unscathed.
Unable to do anything about the lack of privacy in this nightingale-style ward, the doctor had no choice but to continue his rounds as usual, so moving on to his next patient I heard him draw the curtains around another bed. We all then heard him tell Janet that the scan she’d had the previous day showed that she had cancer. There were options – either treat it with medication – chemotherapy – or leave it be. He couldn’t say how effective chemotherapy would be, but asked if it was something she might consider. He seemed to want an answer immediately, and sounded a little exasperated at Janet’s questions about what it all meant for her. She asked him to write it down so that she could look at it again when he’d gone and talk about it with her family when they visited later, ‘or else I’ll forget, doctor. I don’t remember things the way I used to, you know.’ I wondered if she’d later read the doctor’s scrawl informing her of her treatment options as if she were being told for the first time about her cancer diagnosis. How many times would she need reminding that she has cancer, and how hard would it hit her each time?
A rare moment of relative peace followed the ward’s collective learning of Janet’s cancer, but gentle muttering floated across the ward to my curtained bed area from eighty-three year old Doris in bed nineteen. I listened carefully to her quiet conversation with her absent daughter as she recounted happy days at home together and the ease with which her daughter had apparently taken to education.
It seemed that Doris was reflecting with her now grown-up child on a successful passage to adulthood, who appeared to have recently told her mother that she was getting married.
‘Don’t worry, my lovely, about money. Wealth won’t improve your education, or make you love your young man any more than you already do. Wealth won’t make you happier. Enjoy one another and you will have all the riches you need.’
A short pause in her musings during which I wondered if Doris were listening to the other half of this conversation – the imaginary presence of her daughter.
‘...The morning a girl wakes up, my lovely, and realises that she’s going to get married – they’re the happiest moments of her life. I wish you all the happiness in the world.’
A smile hung in the air, and I rested in its gentle warmth, eventually falling asleep.
I awoke with a start sometime later to find that the curtains had been pulled back from around my bed, and that Jeanette was about to sit on my face and use me as a toilet. Too surprised by the situation to react in a coherent manner, I was immensely grateful for June’s moment of lucidity and her shout from the bed beside me for the nurse, who came running from the nurses’ station in the centre of the ward.
‘Jeanette! Stop! Come on now, if you want the toilet let me walk you down there,’ and off the two of them went to the other end of the ward.
Dazed by my lucky escape from what would have been a truly horrendous happening, and still in the process of waking up from an exhausted slumber, I was only mildly bewildered by what I saw on the other side of the ward. Doris had stripped off and was doing naked press-ups against her bed, and the seventy-nine year old woman beside her had taken off her pyjama trousers and was weeing in the middle of the floor.
At this point an official-looking woman arrived on the ward with two others who were clearly being shown around the hospital.
‘This is one of the older wards. As you can see, not a lot has been done to update it yet, and it’s not clear how much will be done. You see the units on the walls? Well when they were being fitted it became apparent that the walls were crumbling. We’re not entirely sure how the units are staying attached to the walls, and to be honest, although we don’t know when it’ll happen, we expect the walls to fall down at some point.’
The hospital visitors glanced at the walls, glanced at their guide, and followed her out slowly nodding their heads.
I was incredulous that the hospital should still be using a ward that might crash to the ground without much warning, and decided that this was another very good reason to get out of there as soon as possible. If I didn’t, it seemed likely that I’d either be crushed by crumbling walls or driven mad by the senility by which I was surrounded. In the meantime I was going to request some ear-plugs so that I could at least be ignorant of all that I was not meant to hear.