I have always prided myself on being able to use humour to cope with life’s peaks and troughs. “Whatever life throws at you, bat it away with a laugh or a chuckle” – that’s my motto. Use laughter as a shield to deflect all the rubbish that lands at your feet in copious amounts on a regular basis. It seems to have worked quite well so far.
Until serious illness hits your child. It’s pretty hard to find the humour in that.
Seeing your son laying in a hospital bed with tubes and pipes everywhere, being pumped with horse-strength doses of nasty but vital meds, every day a battle to find something that works. That’s terrifying. As his big, blue eyes reach to find yours and he utters in the weakest voice possible, “I’m so frightened”, and all you can do is stroke his cheek and reply, “Me too.”
So that’s how we spent our summer. I sat by his hospital bedside every single day, taking it hour by hour, willing him to get better. The first week was utterly dire, not helped by a sudden heatwave engulfing the country and making the critical care ward hotter than Satan’s sauna. The poor nursing staff found it a real struggle – it’s not an easy job at the best of times, but when every single one of your patients is running a high temperature and you don’t know if that’s due to infection or them overheating, it can complicate matters a little! Ever the professionals, they rotated cold compresses like a production line, slapping them on the patients with one hand whilst mopping the sweat from their own brows with the other.
We had a daily tour of the hospital, with a whole barrage of tests and investigations being carried out in quick succession, with ruthless efficiency. Blood tests were another matter – they were giving blood transfusions in one of our boy’s arm and taking numerous vials of blood from his other on a daily basis (one day they actually took 12 vials – I felt like suggesting they cut out the middle man – our son – and just took it directly from the drip stand before it reached the cannula).
As time went on, and we settled into our surroundings, we began to listen to the people around us. One day an interesting chap was brought in and shown to the bed next to us. When I say ‘brought in’, I mean he was handcuffed to a burly police officer who never left his side. The doctor came round to ask for his medical history (the man’s history, not that of the police officer – I’m not sure that would have helped). “So what brought you in here?” asked the doctor. “He did!” the man replied, nodding towards the police officer. After some dialogue that son no 3 would have described as ‘banter’, the conversation continued… “Well, there was a knock at my door, so I opened it because I have nothing to hide (cue honest expression and a shrug of the shoulders) and the police arrested me and took me to the station.” “So why did you come here?” asked the doctor, checking his watch and wondering how many more hours he would be able to spend on just the one patient. “Well I just felt crap,” came the reply. Not sure there was a box to tick for that one.
After 10 days, our boy was more stable so he was allocated a bed on a general ward. And what a ward that was. There were 3 men facing us in the bay (but not in the same bed – that kind of thing wasn’t allowed on the ward). I shall call them A, J and P. A was one of those people who you need to meet in your lifetime – a straight talking scouser with a heart of gold and a sense of humour that belonged on the stage. He had us laughing from day one on that ward. The 3 men didn’t really enjoy the hospital food, so they often ordered a take away to be brought in by a relative or even delivered to the hospital entrance. Many a day, they could be found huddled over a menu, deciding which burger to pick. They each needed their blood sugar testing several times a day too. It was reminiscent of a mini lottery as each man tried to guess the other’s result before it was revealed. The prize? A jelly baby or two.
A had been in hospital a long time and took great delight in telling us that not only was he approaching his 100th day in there, but that he was going to have a party to celebrate. He didn’t disappoint. His family came in and decorated his bed with “100th” banners, flags and fairy lights. He wore a large 100 badge and piled on his bedside table was a vast array of cakes and sweets – enough to feed every single member of staff who had helped or treated him since he’d been there. Unfortunately on the same day, our boy had a visit from the nutritionist as he was very malnourished. She didn’t notice A’s stash of food until she finished talking to us and pulled back the curtain – there was A, surrounded by every kind of forbidden food you could think of. She gasped loudly, but then had to laugh when she saw the look of horror on A’s face. “It’s not all for me!” he protested. We lost count of the amount of people who called in to see A that day – many just because they saw the ‘100’ signs and couldn’t believe how young he looked for such a grand age – he was quite put out since he was actually only in his 50’s.
One day, A and P were selected to trial some new hospital beds. We couldn’t think of a better pair to provide honest feedback. They quickly realised that these beds had a large range of movement – from lowering just 40cm off the floor to rising so high that A quipped he’d be able to “do a Sistine Chapel job” on the ceiling. One of the nurses was particularly short, and A and P decided to play a joke on her. They both raised their beds to the maximum height and then called her into the bay. How they laughed as she berated them, wagging her finger as she shouted up at them, before striding off whilst shaking her head, albeit with a wry smile on her face.
One weekend, we were lucky enough to receive a visit from a rather distinguished, semi-retired Professor who was doing the rounds. “You are on the ice cream and Mars Bar diet, young man!” he exclaimed. A discussion about food followed, during which our boy said that the hospital apple crumble wasn’t as good as my home made efforts. “But I’m always in here with you, I don’t get chance to bake,” I replied. The Professor looked at me. “For Goodness’ Sake woman, go home, get some sleep and bake the boy an apple crumble!” he bellowed. I did just that and rose at 6am to bake a fresh apple crumble. Upon my arrival at the ward, A called across, “I’ve just ordered custard for lunch, nothing else. That’s right, isn’t it?” My son and I looked at each other rather puzzled, and then back at A. “You’ve brought in a large crumble,” he added, “I assume it’s to share!”
As the days rolled by, we felt buoyed by the joviality in the ward. All the patients received an anti-coagulant injection as they spent most of their time in bed. One day, after the nurse administered an injection to A, he muttered just loudly enough for us to hear, “Trousers down, oh just a small prick, full of insults today, how rude…!” I could write a book of all the goings on in that ward – maybe one day I will!
Some days there may have been negative news for one of the patients. A subdued respectful silence would fall upon the ward, each man lost in his own thoughts. Then someone would pipe up with some gentle words of encouragement, the shield of humour would gradually be raised and the mood would slowly lift again. It worked well.
All the staff at the hospital were amazing, from the nurses, doctors, consultants, radiographers, phlebotomists… to the porters, catering staff and cleaners. Each played a vital role in getting our boy well enough to come home. We could not fault a single one. But the icing on the proverbial cake was the support given from the other patients on that ward, in particular A. He made a difficult and frightening situation so much easier to bear, restoring our ability to laugh through the pain.
A, this post is for you. So glad we met.