CC Issue 41 / Social Work

A Portrait of a Hospital

It’s two degrees outside. Maybe three. The moist air precipitates on the ‘No smoking’ sign marking the entrance to the back door of the hospital, feeding the damp on the brickwork below. Dripping. Joining the long stands attached to patients’ arms, wheeled along with one hand as the other grasps a cigarette. I can’t help but shiver as I walk past, the pink and green hospital gowns providing the most inadequate relief from the cold. Yet there’s a surprisingly jovial atmosphere, the bubbling chatter resembling a night at the local by a group of people united by something far more significant than Friday night freedom from work. The irony isn’t lost on anyone: illness, hospital and an ardent commitment to the cause that may have landed them there. I sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I may enquire about some thermal hospital gowns.

***

A patient kindly bought some chocolates for the ward which I tuck into for some welcome relief. Best get in there before the nurses do. It’s Friday afternoon and there’s something in the air, there always is on a Friday afternoon. A patient with mental illness is trying to leave the ward, requiring all the calm and ingenuity and gentleness of the nurses to coax them back. The oxygen levels of another have suddenly nose-dived. Cause unclear. Oxygen mask, examination, blood tests, chest x-ray. It’s 4pm, no time to lose. Make a decision, make a plan. Relatives are now streaming onto the ward, can I have a quick word doctor? The elderly patient next to me has just inadvertently exposed himself. He used to be a gunner in the RAF during the war. It reminds me: today I have cared for a Jamaican grandmother, a twenty year old student, a French lorry driver who doesn’t speak a word of English and a Welshman who may have worked for the secret services but I suspect it may have been the alcohol talking. I love this job.

***

Bleeping heart monitor. Bleeping drip. Bleeping bedside alarm. Bleeping printer. Bleeping door buzzer. Bleeping bleeping bleeping. Come to hospital to rest and recuperate.

***

Governments spend a lot of time establishing markers or indices of social deprivation. How many people live below the poverty line? How can we tell? The markers in hospital are very clear. The choking smell of neglect always comes first. The face is hard, aged, a map of battles won and lost. Then the feet. A consultant told me recently you could tell the state of someone’s mental health by the state of their feet, and I can see some truth in that. Ingrained dirt, hard callous build up from lack of protection, occasionally sores forgotten and left. The final marker is the first line in the medical notes: ‘ETOH withdrawal.’ Years of alcohol abuse leave a person literally pickled, a body which is there but does not function. Sometimes we can choose our realities. In hospital there is no room to choose as you are confronted with what is.

***

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