A VIKING IN MY DUSTBIN. (21) Inmates of illness

Sometimes the ward could seem like a nightmarish human zoo; a freak-show. One poor old soul had been in hospital since 1917. He was called ‘Boady’ by the staff, the reason being, that’s all he’d ever said, “Boady! Boady”, incessantly for 52 years. And he looked just as strange, with eyes that pointed different ways, bald head hunched back and long scratchy fingers, he reminded me of a strange nightmarish bird, with a repetitive cry.
It wasn’t difficult to see how some of the less good-natured nurses left kindness behind and became hardened and in some cases, cruel. The constant noise on the ward alone was enough to drive a sane person crazy! In those days not all the staff as far as I, an untrained ‘assistant’ could see were committed nurses, they weren’t, the thankless daily tasks they had to perform in such an environment put them at the bottom of the nursing glamor stakes (if there are any). To several of them I knew this was just a job, something to be endured.

One day after I had been there a few days,I was shown how to clean and dress a deep ulcer on a patient’s foot. This particular man had to have every thing done for him. he lay in bed all day and all night without moving his position, this had resulted in pressure sores. I couldn’t believe what I saw as the dressing came off his heel; there was a large concave ulcerated cavity where his heel should have been, the result of the disconnect between his mind and his body. I was shown how to clean and dress it and felt a curious and pleasant sense of satisfaction, something positive.
And positive too amidst the decay, stench and dementia, there was surprisingly to me a sense of community; a sense of identity of the ward and it’s incumbents. This came from the nurses who cared. To them the ward was a family, a large family with it’s ‘characters’ like any family. I picked up on this after a while from the staff who’d been caring for this ‘eccentric’ family for years.
The kind nurses viewed the patients as people; the tragically ill who would never share what we took for reality. They treat their charges with ongoing care and respect and as much comfort as could be mustered, remembering birthdays with cards and small gifts for the patients without relatives. They took on the role of family members who never showed. What amazed me was how they’d developed a way of communicating across the awful void of insanity. But I wondered as I looked at the card on the bed-stand, if anything got through to the patient.

Occasionally, there was a funny side to daily life on the ward.
One hot August day I came on for my shift, it was an afternoon. For once it was bright and sunny inside.
The regular staff were having their shift-change meeting in the office so as usual and not being involved in that, I stepped out into the ward to do a check round to see who needed changing or cleaning up.
Patients who could be out of bed were sat as usual between the beds on either side. Whilst down the middle of the room ran an open space the length of the ward, this was usually empty, apart from on Wednesday afternoons when an occupational therapist came in and took over a central table.
Otherwise the open space was furnished with a couple of bare tables that for adornment had small vases of faded plastic flowers on them. Other patients, the more ambulant ones were parked in a dayroom off the end of the war, where they rocked away the day in their chairs, some of these were usually tied, to stop them falling out so I was told.
So this afternoon I was surprised to see six men standing in the middle of the ward all facing the same way.
They were in two lines with three patients on either side . They were all swaying side to side slowly in unison. I had never seen them do anything in a collective way even hold a conversation, yet strangely here they all were, all looking off to the front completely silently their eyes fixed on some other place, time or horizon beyond the confines of the ward.
I approached one elderly gent at the front.
“What are you doing Bill?” I asked as he gently swayed to and fro. Eyes unblinking fixed forward he heard me, and without looking at me said,
“Don’t you fret lad, we’ll soon be home.” He said, “We’re just coming to port, not long now. I’ll buy you a pint after we’ve docked” He said.
I choked up. It seemed they all believed they were docking onboard a troop ship after the war, soon to be de-mobbed and on their way home. It as though Bill and his friends occupied a parallel universe made up of collective experience and shared memories. They were all happy, I could see it in their eyes, they’d survived the war and would soon be home.
The bubble burst for them and for me as the staff meeting ended and the nurses shuffled them back to their chairs in the day room.

(copyright John Sunderland 2009)

A VIKING IN MY DUSTBIN. (21) Inmates of illness

John Sunderland

New York, United States

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Artist's Description

Intsallment twenty one of my autobiography- the day I met six soldiers.

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