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12 days in hospital: 'Then the Coppers crowds came. The wailing made my head swim'

Emer McGinnity writes about a recent stay in hospital, and the people she met there.

Emer McGinnity

AT FIRST, IT was almost fun. Every doctor that came to see me was lovelier than the last, and I felt like a celebrity, being ushered from one sterile room to another and asked the same questions about myself.

I tried out different gags to some of the questions: “That’s not a mole, it’s a bit of dried in Easter egg I’ve been saving”,“No family history of cancer that I’m aware of, unless you count cancer of the manners” and honed my routine, so that the last doctor I saw in A&E before being moved up to a ward was treated to an onslaught of my punch drunk punch lines at four in the morning before she had even asked me my name.

Twelve days is too long for a holiday in my book, so you can imagine my euphoria when I returned home from hospital after almost two weeks inside. Being woken up by the patter of my dog’s paws as he went about his morning errands instead of a blood pressure band boa constricting my arm and being asked “what year is it and have your bowels moved?” by a nurse was a pleasure I had never known.

The hospital itself, as densely populated with science fiction machines as it was with humans experiencing their most mortal moments, made a big impression on me. But what will stay with me forever are the people I met there.

1. The drunk person

My first night in A&E. Dawn was approaching. Everyone’s painkillers and sleeping tablets were finally kicking in, and it was good vibes all around. Then the crowds from Coppers came. The wailing made my head swim. Her strappy stiletto had to be scalpelled from her swollen ankle.

The pain was “11 out of 10” and worse than getting the tattoo on her rib cage, she said as she and HIMSELF argued about what had happened to bring them here.

I couldn’t jam my ear plugs far enough into my ears to muffle them, so I took them out and listened to the free theatre. She was wheeled off for an x-ray before they got off the roundabout of their conversation, so I never found out what happened.

All I know is that it involved flirting and spilled drink (I assume not milk as there was definitely crying).

2. The medical student

My stay at the Hotel Motel Hospital Inn coincided with exam season for the medical students. A few times a day, a knot of them pale as their coats would knock on my curtain to ask me a few questions.

I’d clear some space on my bed or gesture to my chair, and offer some peppermint tea, brewed in my Thermos and served in the cups I was hoarding and saving for unexpected visitors.

Their bedside manner was far superior to that of their superiors. One in their number would usually take charge and ask the questions, and the others would scribble furiously on clipboards. They must have been writing their notes in calligraphy, because every word I uttered inspired a novella-length transcription.

The barrier between the students and I was always weaker than the one between the qualified doctors, a sneeze glass rather than a brick wall. There was less mystery with the students than with their seniors.

The seniors were inscrutable. Being questioned by them was like being at an eerily good fortune teller. They asked questions that hinted at impossible knowledge of my indescribable sensations.

The students, on the other hand, seemed to have leafed through some of the hospital information leaflets on the way up, and asked me if I was experiencing the list of symptoms that were in the most colourful ones with the most likable cartoon organs.

3. The consultant

Waiting to see your consultant is almost indistinguishable from a break up. Instead of a bed or sofa, you lie on a trolley. The soundtrack is not Radiohead or Elliot Smith, but a dissonant symphony of clattering bed pans, squelching body noises, and cheeping monitors that twang on the strings of your nervous system.

The bad food, the pyjamas, the sleeplessness, the constantly wanting to know what THEY are doing, where they are, why they aren’t here, is all the same.

Then, when you’ve come to terms with the fact that you’re on your own, they arrive. They don’t make eye contact. They stay for less time than a McGregor victory, and pack no less of a punch. A few questions about your general wellbeing.

Any physical contact is quick and cold, and then they are gone. You don’t know when they are coming back or if it really happened at all. They know your body better than you do and they know how to make it all better, but they can’t stay.

4. The physiotherapist

If the Von Trapps were abducted and raised in LA, they would all become physiotherapists. The first time I went to the physiotherapy gym, I could not have swung a catheter for the number of smiling, physically flawless people in white polo necks with navy collars calling out motivational tweets to the other patients and each other and themselves.

I eyed up the exercise balls, tiny trampolines, and harnesses swooping from the ceiling and tightened my grip on Michael Cane (my esteemed walking stick).

Fast forward a week, skip through my gym montage, and I actually said out loud “Wow, I’m killing it today!”, and then went in for a high five with a passing stranger, without a hint of irony. That is the power of the physiotherapist.

5. The roommate

By all accounts, the patients you meet in hospitals should be a cross section of humanity, with the number of people you make a connection with well in the minority. But shared vulnerability, the decontextualised setting, and involuntary proximity seem to do something to the way that people relate to each other.

Being an inpatient is an equaliser. Class doesn’t matter or rather, it doesn’t have an expression. To bastardise Shakespeare, if the phlebotomist pricks any of us with a needle, we will all bleed and bruise. I have never seen people care for each other and help each other with the same tenderness.

That’s not to say that someone’s insistence on watching Shortland Street on full volume every day and offering sage advice to the characters didn’t challenge my sanity. I just think that the heightened empathy that a person in pain or uncertainty brings to everyday interactions, even when it manifests itself in clumsy ways, is so moving.

And as the nurses will tell you, regular moving, ideally every day, is the best way to live.

Emer McGinnity is a full-time stay-at-home daughter. She enjoys doing vegan things, is liberal in her use of glitter, and only knits with wool with less than 30% acryclic. She blogs at mirrorinthebackofmybrain.wordpress.com.

Read: A former waitress on the five kind of customers she (not always happily) served

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Emer McGinnity

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