I was in hospital for a total of three weeks. That’s a long time for anyone to be in hospital. You have to be pretty ill to be in hospital for that length of time, and yet in my own mind (and those who visited my bed-neighbours, who told me I looked too well to be in a hospital bed) I wasn’t ill. I was pretty poorly, it turned out, but mine was a mechanical failure, not some desperate illness. Don’t get me wrong, it was where I needed to be, and I was in a great deal of pain. But I didn’t have a lung disease, or heart failure, or cancer as others did. These women looked ill.
Hospital life relies on its routines. At first these are alien, but you quickly succumb to them, and they add structure, comfort even, to the days. Days that merge into one. I scoffed at the hot chocolate trolley marking the end of the day in the early days. That changed, and the thick milky drink became as important as the drugs trolley – and that was the single most important thing. In the respiratory ward in Royal Cornwall I was in the last bed of six. It took just under an hour for the nurse to get to me through the five other beds, and a couple of minutes only to give me the paracetamol and codeine my body needed. If they could move, these women rattled. I repeat, I wasn’t really ill.
Some of those women who were ill saddened me, because they suffered from a greater malaise, loneliness. Ladies who lived alone, and took pleasure from the camaraderie in the hospital ward. There is no privacy on a hospital ward, everything is overheard, even when you try not to. Behind the curtain pulled around a bed during doctor’s rounds, these women would grumble and splutter, presenting much worse than they really were. Being in hospital was more enjoyable than what waited at home. Those women broke my heart every day. None more so than Iris, who when pressed about her next-of-kin listed her solicitor. “Every one else is dead,” she said. It makes you think.
In the many hours of lying in bed, observing and being a part of the rhythm of hospital life, there is a lot of time to reflect. Being in hospital has taught me several life lessons.
One. Never take anything for granted. As I said before, one day you’re on one path, and then you’re not.
Two. Be as fit as you can be. Always. The metaphorical run for a bus. Those that recovered better were fit. If you go into hospital out of shape, you will come out much, much worse.
Three. The effects of smoking are truly gruesome. I met two women, heavy smokers all their lives. Both said that they were now ex-smokers. Time in intensive care sharpens the focus.
Four. Kindness is one of the greatest gifts you can give, and receive. When I was frightened, or frustrated others held my hand when I cried. When a distressed lady took a bed next to me, her mind a muddle with her dementia, my soothing voice calmed her.
Five. The mind is incredibly powerful. It’s Henry Ford – whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. There were women who had given up on their own health, and resigned to the worst of their ailments. There were others who, like me, who said, “I don’t know if I can do that, but I’ll try.” That attitude helps you heal.
Six. It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.
I wouldn’t wish hospital on anyone. I hated my own experience. There is always something to take from it, tough as it may be.
Please note – I was on a female ward in both hospitals. This is the reason for the distinction of gender. It was simply my experience, not a careless, anti-feminist statement on my part.