Being…in Hospital.

By Sean McDermott

Most people at a young age have had the profoundly unnerving experience of visiting a loved one in hospital.  This doesn’t have to be a shocking episode, it might as well be a maternity ward or a broken leg but it tends to stay lingering, unwelcome in the memory bank, creating interest that you can cash out in anxious nightmares or an unwillingness to park in hospital zones.  The sights and smells and sounds of a hospital even when you’ve apparently grown up, are this great big mystery and you can’t help but sneak a peek into the other rooms as you try and find where Aunt Flora is or figure out if you’re in the right wing.  It may take you 20 minutes from the moment you close your car door to the feigned cheery “hello, anyone home?” as you round the last curtain and witness the horror.  Where to stand , where to put the flowers (don’t bring flowers to a hospital ), where to sit and leak the news that “ I really can’t stay too long” as you wriggle in your very essence.

It’s normal.  Many things happen in hospital to many people of different ages…and also …sometimes people die, and sometimes those people who you peeked in on look like they’re next, and typically they’re not.   So… you’re in your seat, you’ve found out how things are and what the likelihood of departure is and why do they need that tube or that bag of medicine that is gravity-cascading into a left arm.  Good… you’re grown up again and comfortable and happy you visited.  Now settle back and look around a little and try and realise that you’ve entered a world where strangers care for each other, and bathrooms with the implied sights sounds and smells are shared, and conversations erupt from even the exceptionally shy.  It is a little city of professionals and patients and support staff who say “good morning” and “goodnight” to each other. A place where someone might offer you a section of their morning paper, or tell you about their children or grandchildren, as if you’d known them for years.  It is a community and there is much pain and hardship at times but doesn’t that ultimately bring people closer and help shed the pettiness of a typical day, on the outside.

I used to call it the wall, and for a time not long ago I was going over the wall and residing in hospital more than I cared to until I decided to care.  I tried to enlighten myself with the characters on the inside with me, rather than drag my misconceptions and prejudice and small minded attitudes along. I opened myself up to the hospital world and I was the better for it.  I must admit though I only did it to preserve my sanity and to survive the climate of anxiety when chronic illness and threatening metabolic circumstances edge closer and become a new reality and an undiscovered playground.  I used to smoke, so sometimes I would venture outside the main doors usually near emergency and watch the other world come and go.  This is when I would see the visitors and the families arriving, bothering each other with silly questions and comments to calm their nerves, and I’d think that they should calm down and be thankful that it’s not them upstairs in the bed and bring some fresh air pleasantry from the outside, from the home or office.  Once a lady stopped and looked at me in hospital gown, me with my rolling i.v. tree and bag of antibiotics, I think, and she said rather tersely, “do you think that you should be smoking”, and I paused and I looked at her from a million miles away and replied “do you think you should be asking me that question” and I held my stare until she continued on her way.  At the time it upset me until I returned to my room, and my room mate, and felt at home again and not cast out.  The wall between myself and the outside world was growing stronger and taller and I felt that I was changing, almost evolving as a person.  I learned to be more understanding of outside people whether they were close to me or not since the single most difficult idea to communicate to anyone not suffering at this chronic level, is what it feels like and what new thoughts come in, and how items and activities that were once so important are now barely memorable.  Life is reduced to survival in tough times, yet just as we grow up from school to our first job and forge a pathway as adults we don’t expect the unexpected and this transition is not seamless but simply a continuation of a rounding out of experiences that make a person who they are.

Look around in hospital, without peeking because here and there you’ll hear laughter or experience that wonderful aroma on the floor when dinner is arriving for countless people who need the comfort of nourishment both from what’s under the lid on the tray, and from the angels who patrol the hallways in scrubs caring for their patients as only they can.  If someone is resting comfortably as you pass by, it may be the first sleep that they have had in days.  If the staff seems unaware of you it might be that they are completely focused on one or more events that is unfolding.  As a patient, I like to see people around the halls because after visiting time it can be a lonely, desolate waiting, for the first light of dawn and the sounds of footsteps and chatter once again just outside your open hospital room door.  It’s ok on our side of the wall sometimes.  I once almost finished a crossword and I’ve written lots of little ideas and a few poems on bits of scrap paper left around the room. I am a master at making appetiser sandwiches with bread rolls, mashed potatoes and chicken, I can forge a dessert from melba toast and a slice of cheese and a package of strawberry jam, and I can make a glass of icewater taste like imaginary tropical juice.  I thought I would teach myself to play poker very well but then I wasn’t admitted to hospital for a couple of months and the excitement wore off.  Maybe the next time I show my passport for the other side of the wall I’ll resume attaining the mind of a card-shark!  Until then I wait at home for my liver transplant and try and stay strong and positive, and stay in the mindset of the hospital room so that it won’t be much of an adjustment the next time, and the time after that.