My son’s illness arrived abruptly one evening with every sign of stomach virus: vomiting, exhaustion, sweating, terrible bloating and pain. I said, Ring the café and tell them you’re not coming. I said, Stay in bed, don’t worry. I’ll bring you soup when you’re better.
He got better; he got worse. I had that feeling every mother knows: a sense that we hadn’t reach the bottom yet, that things would worsen, that my child was very ill.
I talked myself out of it. Why did I always assume the worst? What was the use to listening to all my think-positive podcasts if I couldn’t even weather my grown son’s ’flu when it arrived?
Then we noticed this virus was missing a few important features. Where was the fever, the diarrhoea? Why did we find him suddenly drenched in sweat? His pulse felt small and too deep inside his large wrists. I couldn’t keep up with its rhythm. His veins were disappearing; his skin yellowing. He was in wrenching pain, a violence within him that was mysterious and terrifying. No, he didn’t want food, nor water even. We urged him to drink, and then chased him to the toilet as he vomited again.
Rule out the appendix. Like American astronauts, the boy has no appendix. It disappeared in the middle of the night years ago, flying across four quadrants of his abdomen before being suctioned by the surgical staff of the same hospital where we finally arrived, weary from two days of our son’s violent illness, worried that he can barely walk now. We show the receptionist’s our doctor’s referral. We usher our son into the crowd of emergencies and tell him he’s going to be okay, not to worry, as he collapses into a chair and is sick between his knees.
You don’t need Becket. You don’t need Ionesco. Just spend the night in the annex off of your local hospital’s A&E and imagine you are in the theatre. You are in the theatre.
Your patience and tenacity are the price of your ticket. You pay first in the waiting room where you sit – that is, if you can find a seat. A&E queues feature a deceptiveness evidenced also in lines at Disneyland. You think your turn is coming, that finally you will gain entry through the big wooden doors that separate you from the doctors (the stars of this theatre), but you aren’t anywhere close. There is a whole other room that you hadn’t seen until now, as you angle yourself carefully in front of the receptionists’ thick glassed walls and assess just how long this may take.
There are ways around long waits: a head injury will do it, but also my son’s savvy manoeuvre: vomiting three litres of green bile in full view of dozens of horrified members of the public. Suddenly, the wooden doors open and he is ushered into a quieter corridor in which people with clipboards and stethoscopes busily attend those lined up in beds and chairs along the walls.
He is moved into an observation annex adjacent to where the paramedics park their ambulances, a room the size and shape of a Victorian factory workshop. The hours deepen into midnight and beyond. Spotlights from behind thick curtains light up one by one. From the dark recesses of the long room come voices. An old man with dementia calls from behind the blue curtains.
“Is there nobody to help me? Does nobody pay any attention?” He grows louder as the nurses pass him, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “HELP ME!”
When they don’t stop he tells them they weren’t worth saving, that the good men who went into Poland to save them should have left them to die.
“Does nobody here speak English?” he yells into the darkness. “Are you all a bunch of monkeys on vines?”
Across from him is young man he calls “soldier”.
“Soldiers like you,” says the old man, and then mutters more about the war, about Poland, about those who would be speaking German if not for the British. “You’re a good lad,” he tells the young man.
The young man doesn’t mind being called soldier. He must sense that the old man has no idea what is going on and he addresses him in a patient voice, trying not to contradict him lest the old man start yelling again. But the young man has had a seizure and is, himself, confused. I can see him under the spotlight, his buzzed hair revealing scars on his scalp, his teenage acne that has persisted into adulthood. He looks underfed and anxious, sitting unsteadily on the mattress with his big feet hanging off the edge. He asks the staff why his girlfriend hasn’t arrived. Where is his mother, too?
“Can someone tell my girlfriend, Jaz, where I am?” he says to any nurse who will listen. “I’m sure she is here. She is probably in A&E. Can someone go to A&E and ask for Jaz?”
He can’t call her because he has lost his phone and he can’t remember her number. He can’t remember when he last spoke to her either. After much persistence, a nurse goes to A&E and asks if a Jaz is waiting, then returns and tells the young man his girlfriend is not in A&E.
“Then can you call her?” he asks.
“What is her number?”
The young man says he doesn’t know, can’t remember, lost his phone. “Has anyone seen my phone?” he says. “Can you ask if someone has seen my phone?”
Hours later the paramedic who picked him up after the seizure wheels in another patient strapped onto a heavy gurney. The young man recognizes him, calling him over. “Have you seen my girlfriend?” he asks.
“Your girlfriend?” The paramedic is in a forest green uniform, his heavy belt stocked with medical equipment. He has black boots, thick arms, a dense moustache and a resonating voice that seems to fill the cavernous room in a way that all the people within it cannot. I love this voice; it has a workingman’s quality to it. It’s the voice of the guy who starts the car, fixes the pipe, stops the leak.
“Jaz,” says the young man. “My girlfriend, Jaz.”
“That the woman with you when we collected you? You told her not to come.”
“You specifically told her not to come to the hospital.”
“But she’d want to be here,” says the young man.
“You told her, Son. You told her not to.”
The old man begins bellowing again. He calls out that he is dying, that he wishes someone would come and give him a needle and end his life because that is how much pain he is enduring. “Not that you lot care!” he says.
He has a bacterial infection on his lower leg. I know this because I overheard the conversation he had with the doctor about it, a conversation the old man can no longer remember.
“That looks awfully sore,” the doctor had said.
“Yes, it’s bloody sore! That’s what I’m telling you!”
“We’ll clean it up for you—”
“I don’t want to get contaminated by these nurses! I might catch something from them!”
“—we’ll clean it up and get you some antibiotics.”
The doctor had moved along to the next bed and the next. The antibiotic was taken as a tablet and the cream ordered from the pharmacy. Now the old man can’t remember that he’s been seen at all. Perhaps he also can’t remember that he is too young to have fought in the war to which he is referring.
“Is nobody ever going to help me? HELP ME! Does anyone – anyone at all – speak English?”
The nurses try to tell him he’s seen the doctor but he won’t hear it. “Does nobody help anybody around here? Who is the General? And I mean the tip-top. I want to speak to the General!”
Those who are very ill say nothing. My son exhibits a dangerous quiet while we hover around him making sure he is responsive to his name. We count out his pulse to the stopwatches on our phones, gaze at his chest as it rises and falls with each breath. His pulse is 127. His respiratory rate is just above 20. His hair stands with sweat. His skin beads with it. I am thinking sepsis and ask specifically about that. I am told no, it isn’t sepsis and not to worry about sepsis because they are very clued up about it.
“But you haven’t really seen him,” I say with as little accusation as I can muster. “And if you don’t get him an IV I think he will collapse.”
We get the IV. We wait for the doctor. We watch the drip and our son’s face and we listen as people from across the far ends of the room argue and explain and plead. We hear the nurse ask a woman to tell her what her name is, what her date of birth is.
“What’s the difference?” she says. Then, “Helen.”
On the other side of the thin curtain is a small, balding older man who looks perfectly harmless so it is a shock to hear him speak to his wife, who has dementia. He paces her bed, wrings his hands. He stares out at the doctors then back at his wife. She is doing something to annoy him.
I hear him say, “Don’t touch that! Don’t be so stupid!”
I hear him say, “Now look what you’ve done! That’s a needle, you know!”
She has removed the cannula in her hand. He hisses to her that she is a silly bitch.
“You fucking stop that, you silly bitch!” he says.
She answers as though he has just told her she’s baked a beautiful cake. “I know what I’m doing!” she says brightly.
“Yeah, you know what you’re doing!” He thinks nobody can hear him but his wife’s pillow is only a few feet from where I sit on a plastic hospital chair on the other side of the curtain. “Don’t listen to me when I tell you not to touch it! What do I know? Silly bitch!”
She tries to reassure him that nothing is amiss. “Nothing is wrong,” she says. Again, the bright voice.
“What do I know? Don’t listen to me.”
“I know what I’m doing!”
The husband emanates hatred and despair in equal measures. His wife, the one who once did bake cakes, who once really did know what she was doing, has been replaced by this new wife, who carefully strips the tape from her hand.
The old man with the leg is taken down a hallway. The soldier who is not a soldier spends the night where they first put him, near the arrivals by ambulance. He continues to fret over his girlfriend. We pass by him, curled anxiously on the gurney, looking buggy and confused, so thin he might have been admitted for any number of causes beyond his seizures.
Now we are in a windowless annex room with four yellow walls and no call button waiting for our son to be properly admitted to a ward. Once again, we can hear the old man. His bed must be just down the hall. He is apologising to the nurses, telling them he is sorry his has been yelling so much, that he is in pain. He sounds bewildered, lost. He begins to cry and I feel sorry for him. But even when he’s nice, he’s nasty. To one of the nurses he says, “Be a good girl or I’ll cuddle you as punishment.”
Ten minutes later he is back to his old self, insisting they take him for a wee. “I am desperate! I am going to burst, not that you care!” he yells to no one in particular.
Minutes pass; no one arrives. “I need a wee! HELP! HELP!”
The nurses come, but not in a hurry. It turns out the old man is incontinent. He has no idea if he needs to pee or not. “Get me to the toilet!” he yells. The nurse explains that he has already peed into the pad they provided for him and nothing is left, which is why they haven’t taken him to the toilet.
“We’ll clean you up and get you a fresh pad,” says the nurse.
He tells them they are hurting him, that they are stupid and Polish and ought to have been left to the Germans. “We lost good men!” he growls, then apologizes again.
“Sorry,” he says. “It’s not you. Not you, exactly anyway.”
His voice carries down the dark hall, croaking out his complaints: that he is being neglected, injured, ignored, left to die. That everyone here is foreign. “Good men!” he says. “They were a brave lot.”
My son’s condition worsens and he lies in quiet agony. We will later learn that his problem is an obstructed bowel. We will eventually watch as he is taken through x-rays, then CT Scans, then as he endures a nasal-gastric tube that is inserted into his nose. We will watch as he lies unmoving for the x-ray, nods consent to the scan, swallows the tube in painful gulps.
We hear the footsteps of the night staff that scramble to cope with the numbers arriving. We hear cries and shouts from people who are angry nobody is bothering to help when they are in so much pain. A broken hand, an ear that has been split on the rugby pitch. Many have chronic conditions that have flared up overnight: breathing, blood sugar levels, lymphodoema. The yellers are often not in terrible condition, not physically, that is.
I walk down a dark corridor and am stopped by a woman with wild hair moving stiffly along in her walker. She wants to know how my son is doing. “I saw him in casualty when you came in. He looked very serious.”
“He’ll be fine,” I tell her. I don’t know that this is true, but why not say he will be fine, that his gut will one day function again? It can’t hurt to believe he will be okay, can it? And he will be okay, won’t he?
The old man has started again. But now his inane shouts feel almost comforting. They distract me from my growing fear. I understand that the old man has dementia, that his racial slurs and ugly words toward anyone female are the result of his tangled mind. I can’t help wondering if this was always who the old man really was, however. That the dementia has simple removed a veneer of politeness that once hid his deeper self.
This is my own prejudice evidencing itself against old people, sick people, feeble people. I admire the nurses who ignore him as he tells them they weren’t worth dying for in battle. Who persist with his body, which is falling slowly apart as his mind dips and wanders.
His leg is the least of his troubles – I knew that from the beginning. But here is what I did not know: he is a regular visitor here. He must be because I now hear one of the nurses call him by his name as though he is familiar to them. Is that you, Roger? I hear. How’re you doing, Roger? Their voices are Polish, Portuguese, Irish, Australian, English. And they all know Roger.
A doctor arrives, a young guy whose bicycle helmet attaches to his knapsack and whose glossy hair is combed just like my son’s hair. He says an x-ray suggests an intestinal blockage but they are not sure. They need more tests and, yes, he will be admitted.
All night Roger continues, and I almost welcome his song of complaint because it helps keep me from thinking more darkly about my son’s condition. The nurses indulge Roger, “Thank you,” they say as he tells them good men died to save their blasted country. Or “How could we look after you, then?” when he tells them to go back to wherever they came from.
My son says nothing. I say nothing. We wait in the yellow annex. I make sure the drip is working. My son closes his eyes against the harsh light above. The woman in the walker offers a little wave as she passes by once again. Roger starts bellowing just as the doctor comes to tell us that we need to go to the surgical assessment ward.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Roger screams. Then, “Are there any English here? Are there any English?”