Dear Readers, today I would like to share a piece with you that I wrote during my mother’s recent stay in hospital. I know that many of us have loved ones who are unwell for one reason or another, and I was interested in the way that the NHS regards non-human nature. I’ll be back to the normal birds, insects and plants next week.
My mother and father came to stay with me in London this Christmas. All three of us knew it was a risk. Both my parents have the full range of late-onset ailments ( COPD, diabetes, dicky hearts) but this is the only holiday that they get, and, besides, prizing safety above all else means that we gradually retreat into our shells, like hermit crabs, afraid that every shadow is a shore-side bird waiting to gobble us up.
On Christmas morning. Mum was trying to pin one of the brooches I’d bought her onto her jumper, fumbling with the clasp. She sat back and smiled, the filigree butterfly a little skew whiff. Then, I remembered.
‘One last present,’ I said.
I’d almost forgotten the orchid that I’d hidden away in the bedroom. As I walked back downstairs, I looked at the flowers. I am not a great fan of orchids – they have an alien quality that looks sinister to me. And yet, my mother has a gift for coaxing them into flower time and again. This one was pale pink with mauve bruise-like blotches. The mouth of each bloom opened like a man-trap with long, backward-pointing teeth.
‘It’s beautiful!’ said Mum, as I passed it to her.
As I removed the wrapping, one of the flowers detached itself and floated to the ground. I picked it up, feeling the waxiness of the petals. I showed it to Mum.
‘Oh, put it in some water’, she said, ‘I can’t bear to think of it just getting thrown away’.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘Won’t it just die anyway?’
But she looked so upset that I found a dish and floated the flower in it. It’s still there now.
Early on Sunday morning, I heard a rasping whisper from Mum and Dad’s bedroom.
‘I think you need to call someone’, Mum said. ‘I can breathe in, but I can’t breathe out’. I could hear her chest wheezing and crackling from across the room.
An hour later, she was in an ambulance, being given oxygen, heading for the nearest London hospital.
The doctors confirmed that she was 80 years old. They heard the recitation of her health problems, shook their heads over her oxygen levels and the sounds coming through their stethoscopes. They ascertained that at her best she could walk only ten paces without having to stop to gather her breath. They admitted her to the hospital. She was put in a huge room on her own. There were no windows, but there were lots of empty navy-blue storage cupboards, as if this had once been a kitchen but all the appliances had been removed. The fluorescent light gave off a constant background hum. It was like being in the belly of a great machine.
‘I’m not afraid of dying’, said Mum. ‘But it makes me so sad to think that I’ll never walk around Marks and Spencer again, or walk in a park. And I know I’m lucky and there are lots of things that I can still do, but somehow, just now, that doesn’t help’.
Normally I try to protect myself by avoiding what is really being said in these conversations, by trying, like Pollyanna, to look on the bright side. But today, I just sat, and held her hand, and cried with her.
As I walk to the hospital, I notice how bright all the colours seem, as if I’m hallucinating. The thoughts are chasing one another round and round inside my skull, as scratchy as rats. There is a wall alongside me and beyond a wildflower garden, at head height. The low winter sun lights up a patch of trailing bellflower. I see the way that the stamen are casting a hooked shadow on the lilac petals, the way a single raindrop trembles on the edge of a leaf before falling, in what seems like slow motion, onto the soil. And for a moment, I don’t think about Mum at all, and I feel my shoulders relax. I take a deep breath, then another. And then I walk on.
It used to be that hospital wards were full of flowers, the stink of lilies and gently decomposing chrysanthemums rising above the smell of antiseptic and hospital cooking. But now, all plants are banned ‘for hygiene reasons’. Probably the nurses are so overworked that they don’t have time to cope with browning foliage and wilting poinsettias. But I can’t help thinking that something alive and beautiful is as important for healing as drips and antibiotics. Mum’s bunker looked completely sterile. But I had underestimated her.
At Christmas dinner, I had handed out some crackers that I’d bought from a wildlife charity. Each one contained a card that, when opened, released a snippet of bird song. The game was to guess which bird was singing – nightingale, blue tit, wren? Mum had put the cards in her bag. When the very important Consultant and his two trainees came along to see how she was doing, she produced one of the cards and pushed it into the Big Man’s hand.
‘Open that’, she said.
He looked at her askance, and opened the card. The sound of a song thrush in full-throat filled the bare room, flooding the place with the sound of woodland wildness.
The consultant’s face changed. He closed the card and opened it again. He turned to the two trainees.
‘I know you want to go home’, he said to them, ‘But listen to this!’
And he ‘played’ the song again, before closing the card and handing it back to Mum with a bow.
After a few days, Mum is moved to a different ward. As usual, she hates it at first – relationship is what Mum thrives on, and in each new location she has to charm everyone all over again. But she does have a window now.
‘At night, I can see all the planes flying over’, she says.
I notice that there’s a spider outside the window. At first I think it’s dead, but then I see that it is on a web, blowing backwards and forwards as the wind buffets the building. I decide not to tell Mum. She isn’t the world’s biggest spider fan. But it makes me happy to see this little note of anarchy in this antiseptic place.
‘At least I can get a breeze here’, says Mum. ‘Though when I was standing up next to the window yesterday they made me get back into bed in case I caught a chill’.
Her temperature is still too high, she is coughing most of the time and she’s pulled her canula out.
‘ I thought I’d be feeling a bit better by now’, she says. ‘But they’ve still got me on that bloody antibiotic that doesn’t work’.
I know that doctors don’t like to be told their jobs, but still.
‘Did you know that Mum’s been hospitalised for Proteus infections several times?’ I ask the doctor when he’s next on his rounds.
‘No’, he says. ‘Maybe we should talk to the people in Metabiotics’.
Proteus is a super-bug, and Mum probably acquired it in a hospital. Along with MRSA and C.Difficile, it is infecting our clinics and operating theatres. Proteus is so-called because it hides in the body, changing location. There are several variants, many of them immune to one antibiotic, some to several. The use of several antibiotics simultaneously is called Metabiotics.
This is the age of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On a bad day, I feel that we are standing on the threshold of apocalypse. I remember a display I saw about the Jamestown settlers in America. Several of them died from a simple tooth abscess that could not be treated, became infected, and spread through the body.
As we seek to sterilise our homes and hospitals and schools, life is creeping back through the keyhole, pouring under the door, finding the draughty spaces around our windows.
The doctors change the drugs. My mother’s body becomes a battleground. At 3.30 a.m. she rings me.
‘I’m in The Game’, she says. ‘I’m trapped in a room, and they’re murdering people next door, and slaughtering them like animals, and they won’t let me out’.
‘Mum,’ I say, heart racing, ‘You know that none of this is real?’
‘I know’, she says, ‘but I want to get out and they won’t let me go’.
The phone goes dead. I call the ward. After what seems like a year, the nurse answers. I explain the situation.
‘I’ll talk to her’, he says. ‘It’s the drugs’.
The next morning, Mum can’t remember any of it, but her breathing seems better. Then her blood sugar climbs to 32, a dangerously high level. It seems that, somehow, the bacteria are fighting back. This is not going to end any time soon.
On my visit, Mum hands back the cards with the bird songs in them.
‘Take them home’, she says. ‘Keep them safe. They don’t belong here’. And she closes her eyes, a look of concentration turning her face to marble. She is not beaten yet.
Today, there is finally good news. The blood sugars are under control. Mum’s breathing is improving. Her poor body has fought back again, and if all goes well, she will be out of the hospital in a couple of days.
I am making my peace with the orchid. The buds are clenched fists, but the newly opened flowers are poppy-shaped, like cupped hands, around the soft inner petals. I see that the long, tongue-like leaves have a fine layer of dust.
‘I’d better clean you up’, I say to the plant. ‘Before Mum comes home’.
Mum finally left the hospital on Thursday, and is travelling back home to Dorset with Dad and I on Sunday. She isn’t fully well yet, as might be expected, but she is getting better.I am deeply grateful to all the staff at the Whittington Hospital in north London for their unfailing care of my mum, and for their patience and dedication. The NHS truly is a pearl beyond price.