We only spent 48 hours together. Three shoulders, a hip and a spine; female patients on an orthopaedic ward in various stages of recovery from surgery. But in that short time, we really bonded.
My mother has been in hospital a few times in recent years, and we were always amazed how quickly she got to know other women on the ward. I won’t be like that, I thought to myself, snootily. I’ll shut myself off with my books and my phone.
It didn’t really work out like that. During my first two days after surgery, I welcomed the company of my fellow patients. We laughed, we cried, we hurled. We sympathised with each other’s pain (the shoulders seemed to have the worst of it), sleeplessness and, in my case, relentless nausea. How we moaned about Nurse A, who delivered the nightly drugs round with plodding slowness and a slightly unnerving air of confusion. We all agreed that she only had three wheels on her trolley. An unexpected moment of hilarity came when the occupational therapist gave me, with indecent haste I felt, a leaflet entitled ‘Sex After Your Hip Replacement’. Not exactly at the top of the ‘To Do’ list at the time.
But as well as this camaraderie, I also heard unbearably sad stories from two of the women.
While she was waiting to go to theatre, Mary, a woman in her fifties, told us a bit about her life. Her mother had become pregnant with her at 17 and, being unmarried, was packed off to the UK by her family to give birth. She stayed there after the birth and looked after Mary for the first two years of her life. But on returning to Ireland, she placed her daughter in an orphanage run by nuns. Mary never saw her mother again. She spent fifteen years there because her mother refused to allow her to be adopted. There was an even more cruel twist – Mary’s childless uncle and his wife offered to adopt her, but this was also refused. Maybe her mother always intended to return for Mary, but in the end she emigrated to Australia and had another family. What an awful, awful start in life.
Then, shortly before I was moved to another room, another tragic tale. Christine, who had been extremely anxious to be discharged, was waiting for her husband to collect her. The ward was quiet; another woman had left earlier that day and the other two were asleep. She began to tell me about her 25 year old son. A few days before she was admitted to hospital, he took an overdose of anti-depressants. He survived, but this had come as an immense shock to her and she was still struggling to comprehend why he had done it. He is the father of two beautiful children, whose photo she had proudly shown us all. Like so many others, he had lost a well paid job, He is currently working long hours for the minimum wage in a job he hates. Despite this, he insisted on taking the family for their usual holiday abroad last year. She felt that perhaps this struggle to keep up appearances and provide for his family had finally become too much for him.
Now I understood why she was so keen to go home. She was terrified. All she wanted to do was mind her precious son, put her arms around him and protect him from the unthinkable. Hearing this, I was amazed at how well she had managed to hold things together during her hospital stay. She dried her eyes, her husband arrived and she was gone. Her story, and Mary’s, have stayed with me.
The experience of hospital and surgery leaves you emotionally vulnerable. It’s unlikely these women would have opened up to strangers in another situation. And it’s sad to think how their stories are typical of so many others in this benighted country.
(Names have been changed)