It seems as though I’ve seen a lot of people dying recently. Dying as a verb – breath gasping, limbs seizing, guts retching; dying as a noun – interrupted, ventilated, brain dead. After all this time in hospitals – the medical student in the corner witnessing silentlyish the tragicomic human mess – I wonder what I’ll feel when it’s me or my loved ones. Will I feel it for real, or will it seem second-hand, as if I’m remembering something I saw once in a film?
I walk into the A&E cubicle and draw the curtain. An elderly man lies propped up on the trolley, all toothless smile and ruddy cheeks. He has a hook on his left arm that’d put the fear of god into Peter Pan.
“Hello sir, I’m one of the medical students. Would you mind me asking some questions about what happened tonight?”
“Oh, no love, fire away! I’ve been having this cough for a while is all. Then I went to the doctor today and he said I have water on me lung.”
“Have you been having any other symptoms with the cough?”
One of my favourite things about this particular hospital is the way half the patients sound like characters from The Archers.
“Oh no love. I was out driving me tractor this morning.”
One of my least favourite things is the way hospital turns perfectly normal, cheerful individuals into part of an institution. The next morning I go to the respiratory ward and find Mr Archer lying in bed in a gown, his hook resting to one side, his smile rather less wide.
“Hello love, look at all the stuff they took out of me.”
He has a chest drain in – a tube snaking from his pleural cavity between his ribs and down into a plastic bucket on the floor.
“Two litres came out in five minutes that did, it felt ever so strange. I was walking around with all that and never knew!”
I hope Mr Archer is ok. I really don’t want him to be just another old man who walked cheerfully into hospital with a cough and came out with cancer. Those stories are all too frequent and too sad. I wonder whether I think about it too much, whether I ascribe sadness to people in hospital who are really feeling fine. But I can’t help seeing the wards full of blank faces, all identical in hospital gowns, and knowing that a few days ago they came into A&E as individuals, walking and smiling perhaps, just with a cough.
So I’ll go back on Monday and see Mr Archer’s test results. I want to discover that his pleural effusion was caused by jumping down from his tractor too fast, or being too exuberant with his hook. I don’t want to find any cancer, any heart disease, any pneumonia. I want a happy story please.