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The Haunted Sick Bay

In last week’s blog, I explained about two of the three rooms in the school sick bay. The room called Firefly was better than the one called Bluebird because it had a radio. But the other room was far less pleasant than either of them.

The third room was called Britannia, and was the worst to be in. It was the furthest from the entrance and so always felt isolated and out of the way.

For all that, I do have one good memory of that room.

I was down there on one occasion and a friend came to visit. She busied herself tucking the blankets round me and then remarked, “If I do all this for you, what would I do for someone I really liked?”

(By this she meant, I think, a Manchester United football player.)

That story aside, I really didn’t like Britannia, and my feelings about the room were not helped by one of the older girls telling me that the room was haunted.

Nowadays, of course, I would find that really rather interesting, but at the time it made me very uneasy. Alone in Britannia one night, I thought I heard the springs creaking in one of the other, unoccupied, beds. I lay there in fear, wondering whether I had been joined by the ghost of a former patient, perhaps one who had not made it out of the sick bay alive.

I can’t tell you how relieved I was when daylight finally started to shine in through the curtains and revealed that I truly was alone.

According to schoolgirl legend, we had a number of ghosts at our school. As the main building had been a 17th-century manor house, this might not have been all that surprising, but all the spectres were, in the stories I heard, of much more recent vintage. There was The Grey Lady, for instance, who was reputed to wander the corridors at night.

For some reason, I never met anyone who had actually encountered her, though.

Then there was the legend of Stella.

We had an impressive entrance hall and rising up from it was an oak staircase with a shiny brass handrail. There was a dent in the rail near the bottom. The story went that a girl, Stella, was so unhappy at Chorleywood that she had thrown herself from the top of the oak stairs, hit her head on the rail at the bottom, and subsequently died. The tale was entirely fictitious but this didn’t stop it being handed down from year to year. In fact it was remarkably enduring for a piece of fake news.

But returning to the subject of the sick bay, I ought to mention that we were well provided for, in that there was always a qualified nurse in charge, and even those who stood in for her when she was off duty generally had some nursing training. My friend and I would often sit in Surgery, after the evening rush had died down, and talk to the nurses, one of whom has remained a friend to this day.

All alone with the Romans

In my last blog, I was telling you about the Chorleywood College ‘flu epidemic of 1976 and how I ended up in the school sick bay.

On that occasion, I was in the nicer of the two two-bed rooms, and one of my form-mates was in there too, so at least I had someone to talk to. It could have been worse, and on other occasions it was. Sick bay could be a very lonely place.

I remember being by myself in there one time and hearing my friends talking as they walked along the form-room corridor. In reality, they were only a few feet away from where I lay, but my isolation made it feel more like a million miles.

Being in sick bay was always a bit of a mixed experience. If you were really poorly, of course, you were just grateful to be in bed. When you were feeling a little better, however, you could lie there in blissful idleness while imagining everyone else grinding away at their lessons. You had to enjoy this fleeting pleasure while you could, however, because once you were fit again you were expected to work twice as hard in order to catch up on everything that you had missed.

All the dormitories at my school were named after ships and boats and the rooms in sick bay followed the same pattern. I think the reason behind this ludicrously inappropriate nautical theme was that the school originally started at a barn in a village called Jordans, which was supposed to have some of the wood from the Pilgrim Fathers’ ship the Mayflower incorporated into its structure. This tenuous historical maritime link was sufficient to engender a constant obsession with comparing the school to a ship, a symbolism particularly noticeable in the school song. This was entitled “Our ship” and had music by Albert E. Bevan and words by Gwen Upcott. It contained the memorable line, “Once aboard the Cedars, (i.e. the school) you’re never going back” (see Memory 80 on this page for the full lyrics). We found these words darkly ominous and all hated the school song with a vengeance.

Anyway, the first two-bed room in the sick bay was called Firefly. It had a radio in it, which helped to while away the hours and was one of the reasons I thought it was the better room. The middle room, Bluebird, had no such amenity. I remember being confined there once with an infectious illness, so that I was not allowed any visitors. I had no company apart from my book, Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow, which was about the Romans trying to invade Germany.

Much as I enjoyed historical fiction, I did get bored. I certainly got fed up with my own company.

What made it worse was that there were two girls in Firefly and I could hear them talking through the wall. One day, one of the care staff came in and remarked that Liz and Elaine next door were feeling bored. I nearly screamed, “How dare they say that they’re bored! They have each other and a radio!”

When I felt well enough, I explored all the lockers in the room and found a pack of Lexicon cards with which I tried to amuse myself by dealing hands and making as many words as I could.

Not scintillating fun, but needs must!

–0-0–

As you see, I dealt with the loneliness and boredom as well as I could. But being scared stiff was another thing altogether. I’ll tell you all about that next week.

What happened the day after Agincourt

I will start by addressing the burning question of the day. No, not who won the US election but whether I have put my central heating on yet.

The answer is, “Yes.” I succumbed at the start of November.

We are in lockdown again here in the UK and some friends and I were musing on the ‘flu epidemic of 1976. To be honest, I don’t know if there really was an epidemic in the country at large or whether it was just at our special school for the visually impaired, Chorleywood College. But you can imagine how fast an infectious illness travels at a boarding school. Our sick bay had eight beds. There were two two-bed rooms and one four-bed. In no time at all these were all taken and dormitories were being pressed into service as sick bay extensions.

This all happened in my O-level year. One of the books we were studying for English Literature, which we called “English Lit”, was Shakespeare’s Henry V. I generally like Shakespeare’s plays, but Henry V is not one of my favourites.

As it happened, the famous film adaptation with Laurence Olivier was being screened at the local community centre, and our form were due to go. When it came to the evening in question, however, there were only two of us left standing. So, we set off with the new P.E. teacher, whom we really liked, because she was friendly and funny and easy to talk to.

Now, I know this film is much loved by Olivier fans but, I’m sorry to say, it did absolutely nothing for me. Henry could have gone once more into the breach until doomsday as far as I was concerned and I would still have been completely unmoved. It was all utterly unmemorable. In fact, the only aspect of the film that sticks in my mind at all is the recollection that the French king sounded a little bit like Kojak when he laughed. Unfortunately, at the time this gave me the giggles and, all in all, I didn’t take the occasion very seriously at all.

My friend and I felt quite smug that we were the only two members of our form well enough to go to the film. And we got to go with our favourite teacher.

Karma kicked in, though, and the following day we duly succumbed to the ‘flu.

A bed in sick bay must have come free just as I staggered along to Surgery as I soon found myself in the privileged position of being housed in the first of the proper two-bed sick-bay rooms, with the added bonus of sharing the room with someone from my form.

All in all, that stay in sick bay wasn’t too bad. Sometimes, though, it could be a very lonely place. I’ll tell you more about that next week.

Putting people in boxes

We all tend to put people in boxes, even if we try hard not to: that person is English, that person is deaf, and so on. As we get to know them, we find that they don’t fit neatly into any one category and we gradually adapt to seeing them as they really are.

Large bureaucracies like the NHS find it harder to think outside the box.

I have to have regular blood tests. While I was not allowed to walk because of my broken leg, there was no question of me being able to attend the surgery, so arrangements were made for a nurse to come to me.

Now I am on my feet it is a different story. The rule is unbreakable: if you can step outside your front door, you are not housebound and you do not qualify for a home visit. I tried explaining to the community nursing team that whilst that was true, it was one thing to ask a taxi driver to guide me because I am blind and quite another to ask them to assist a visually-impaired person who is using a Zimmer frame.

The answer was still no.

In the end, I had to ask a friend to accompany me to the surgery.

In example number two, I was trying to book hospital transport. For my first X-ray I was allowed transport because I couldn’t walk. There was no ambiguity there. However, when I rang back recently to arrange transport to hospital for my second X-ray, there was a definite reluctance on the other end of the phone.

“Do you go out at all?”

“I go to church.”

“How do you get there?”

“A friend gives me a lift but then she is going there anyway. It’s quite a different thing to ask her to take me to the hospital.”

“Can’t anyone go with you?”

I was asked to see if I could find someone to accompany me. I was told, that, if this really wasn’t possible, I could come back to them but there was no guarantee that they could help me.

In the end, I did manage to find a friend who could take me, and I’m very grateful for their help.

Now, it probably sounds as though I’m complaining but, actually, I’m not. I do understand that the NHS has limited resources and has to draw up rules to ensure that those resources are used for the benefit of those who need them most. I also understand that if they started making exceptions it would end in over-stretched resources and headaches all round for those in charge.

There is an issue here, though, about what happens when you don’t slot into a convenient category or meet a predefined bureaucratic criterion – when, in other words, you don’t quite “fit into the box.”

When I mentioned this to the nurse as she took my blood, she said it was a problem many of her patients had. I’m sure it is. There are lots of us out here with complex needs.

I hope I’m getting across that I’m not indulging in special pleading for the visually-impaired. We’re not the only ones affected by these issues. I do want to make a point about visual impairment, though, when it’s combined with another physical disability. I don’t think people always realise how much this complicates life.

Even when I am in my own home, where – at least in theory! – I know where I’m going, I still bash into the walls when I have to use a Zimmer frame because I can’t accurately judge how big the frame is. I don’t always walk smoothly through gaps in the furniture for the same reason. I’m not a brilliant Zimmer frame driver and, when I do go out, I have to get my friends to grab hold of the frame to steer me, rather in the manner they used to do when helping me with supermarket trolleys back when I still went out to a supermarket!

Imagine me trying to explain to a taxi driver, for whom English may not be their first language, exactly what help I need! They are mostly very helpful, but I think that would be asking a bit too much.

I don’t know what the answer is and, as with so much in life, there probably isn’t a perfect solution. I do wonder, though, whether a little education for health service professionals about the complications thrown up by having more than one disability might not be a very good idea.

Autumn

I have just been walking round my garden with my trusty Zimmer frame, getting a little exercise and soaking up the sunshine.

I love these autumn days when the sun is bright and there is even still a little warmth to be had but there is that wonderful sharp tang in the air.

I associate this time of year with fresh beginnings: starting a new school year, starting college, starting my first job, and now, of course, recommencing activities that I had to suspend for the summer.

It’s great!

There are two aspects of this time of year that I don’t like, though.

The first is the drawing in of the days. I hate putting on the lights and drawing the curtains at six o’clock in the evening. Interestingly, some of my friends who can’t see at all feel the same so it isn’t just to do with actually seeing the approaching darkness outside. There must be something more fundamental to do with feeling the days are growing shorter and we are living more enclosed lives. This may take on an even deeper significance now that we are living with coronavirus and the spectre of local lockdowns.

Once the winter has truly arrived, I can start to enjoy being cosy indoors, but right now I am still lamenting the end of summer.

The other thing I don’t like about this time of year is the coming of the cold. I have poor circulation and arthritis so the chilly air really doesn’t agree with me. Some days I can actually feel myself slowing down. More problematic still is having cold hands. Cold fingers lose their sensitivity. I find it more difficult to feel things, and particularly to read braille. It doesn’t help that my office faces north and can be quite chilly, even on otherwise warmish days.

And the truth is, I have a little of Scrooge in me.

We have had some relatively warm Octobers in recent years and I have been able to put off starting the central heating until we were nearly in November. This has become something of a challenge to myself. How long can I hold out?

Meanwhile, I put on my fingerless gloves in the office. Sometimes I find I just have to put the electric fire on but I let the room warm up and then switch it off again. I tell myself to put more layers on. Eventually, of course, the elements will win.

Just between you and me (please keep it a secret!), I have already put the central heating on a couple of times this year. It was just to warm the house for a short while in the mornings and evenings you understand. Not cheating at all…

I probably won’t win the “Can you keep the central heating off until November?” challenge this year. The forecast isn’t great but I’m going to hang on for as long as I can!

Devon boats, trains and cars (not to mention cathedrals and Jurassic cream teas!)

I promised last week to tell you some more about the holiday my friend Mary and I took in Exmouth recently.

The day after our abortive ice-cream sundae hunt, we took our second boat trip of the week. This voyage was along the so-called Jurassic Coast and included a Devon cream tea, which was absolutely delicious. Whereas on Sunday’s river cruise the water had done no more than lap gently at the side of the boat, this time there was a definite swell and there was no mistaking that we were out to sea. The boat bobbed up and down and the waves slapped vigorously at the sides of the vessel. This was all very satisfactory from my point of view. I don’t want a calm mill pond, I want a sea that is alive and kicking so that I can get the full experience – and on this occasion I certainly did!

Another fun if slightly more sedate trip was riding on the land-train around the town. Again, we got a commentary as we went along and this helped us get a good idea of where everything was.

Our explorations of south Devon by land and sea were extended still further when, half-way through our holiday, a college friend of mine who lives in the area came over and took us out in her car for a pub lunch and a drive along the coast.

On Friday we decided to venture into Exeter. This meant travelling on the train. We hadn’t booked assistance in advance but the station staff at Exmouth and Exeter Central were wonderful. They put wheelchair ramps in place and made sure we got safely on and off the train.

I have been to Exeter Cathedral before but it repays visiting more than once. It has a lot of history attached to it and is a magnificent building. One of the volunteers on duty offered us a guided tour, which we were pleased to accept. She was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. She knew the best route for the wheelchair, found a braille guide and showed us a tactile floor plan of the cathedral. This was really useful. I know what the layout is likely to be up to a point but when you can’t see it can be quite hard to hold the image of such a large building in your mind’s eye and work out which bits link up and where. They also had an architect’s model of the outside of the building which gave me a different perspective. Again, drawing a picture in of such a large structure just in your head can be very difficult.

Late summer was already becoming autumn and the weather started to turn colder and wetter towards the end of our stay. We had chosen a good week for our holiday but now it was time to go home.

We came back refreshed and feeling we had been very fortunate.

So now it’s back to work. No peace for the wicked, as my P.E. teacher used to say!

Exmouth

After our rather difficult summer, my friend Mary and I felt we needed a complete change of scene. We settled on Exmouth as a place she knew well and somewhere where there would be level walking to enable ease of wheelchair locomotion.

I was quite nervous about travelling by train with a wheelchair, walking frame and luggage but my sister and brother-in-law came to our rescue and enabled us to hire a car and driver to take us there and back door-to-door. So, off we set.

The flat was on the ground floor of a Victorian villa. The rooms were large, with high ceilings, and in the lounge we had a beautiful fireplace, complete with carved decoration. I do love  a tactile fireplace!

We had obviously done a good deed or two somewhere along the line because we were blessed with amazing weather for September. The sun shone warm and bright and the day after we arrived we went on our first boat excursion. This was along the river Exe and we were entertained with a commentary on the wildlife, local places of interest and how expensive buying a flat in the area is. One had recently sold for over  a million pounds. They wheeled me onto the boat in my chair and parked us at the front. I drank red wine and Mary ate an ice-cream. (She said that she didn’t want to be found driving a wheelchair whilst under the influence of alcohol.) We agreed that we were living the good life.

Later we sat on the seafront just listening to the sea and reading our books.

The next day we explored the town, treating ourselves to coffee and cake. This was the beginning of our unhealthy eating plan which we kept up, I’m pleased to say, for the whole week.

Which is not to say that we didn’t have our occasional failures.

We were sure we had seen somewhere that a local eatery served ice-cream sundaes. We walked (well, I didn’t!) around the town and along the seafront but could not find this elusive establishment. Mary even nipped back into the flat to check the visitor information but, no, there was nothing there about ice-cream sundaes. So we kept on looking.

Eventually we found a sign advertising ice-cream sundaes on a shop near the flat which was probably what we had originally seen. But it was out of date, a false prophet of illusory frozen dessert delights which in reality were no longer available. Further enquiries confirmed that there wasn’t anywhere in town that actually served ice-cream sundaes. I found this amazing. There was plenty of gorgeous full-cream Devon ice-cream for sale, however, so that day we “made do” with a cone each. Now we are back in Swindon, however, we will have to make up for this holiday disappointment by ordering something suitably calorific from our local branch of Kaspa’s.

We hadn’t been resident in Exmouth for long before we met our upstairs neighbour. He was a retired army captain who had been living in Spain but who had returned to England on the death of his wife so as to be near his children. He was delighted to find people to talk to and accompanied us into town, telling us where the best bakeries, coffee shops and pubs were and warning us about the expensive restaurants. He seemed to know the names of most of the counter staff in these establishments and told us, wherever we went to eat, to say that Richard had sent us.

He was keen to help on a practical level too and kept strolling into the middle of the road and holding his hand up to stop the traffic for us. Generally, Devon drivers had already proven sympathetic to wheelchair users, but it was great to be treated like VIPs!

Later in the week he twisted his knee and Mary was able to repay some of his kindness by doing some shopping for him.

We had other adventures, too, during our stay in Exmouth, but I’ll tell you about those in next week’s blog.

Nearly back to nearly normal

Welcome back dear reader! I hope August has been good for you, or at least bearable, depending on how lockdown is affecting you.

When you left me I was hopping about on one leg and relying on my long-suffering friend and PA to push me around on wheels and generally look after me as I was incapacitated.

On 14 August I made the momentous journey to the hospital to have my recovery assessed. I had to use hospital transport, which meant I had to be ready two hours before my appointment time.

So, there I was, up, dressed and breakfasted by 7 am. They telephoned me at 8 am to say they were ten minutes away and then duly turned up at 8.10. They had to put me in a wheelchair and roll me out to the ambulance where I sat in state with the wheelchair clamped to the floor of the vehicle.

When we arrived at the hospital I was transferred into another wheelchair and handed over to the clinic staff. I had to wear a mask, of course, which made me feel like a highwayman, but it seemed a small price to pay to keep us all safe.

I didn’t have long to wait before I was wheeled down to X-ray and I hardly had to wait any time at all to be collected and wheeled back into the doctor’s room. In fact, I felt that everything ran more smoothly than it often does when there isn’t a pandemic.

The doctor informed me that the fracture hadn’t completely healed but that there was so much metal holding my bones together that it would be safe to start putting weight on it.

Yes, I was given permission to walk again!

In no time at all, the transport people had whisked me home again and I had started my new life of independence.

Because the pain had diminished while I wasn’t putting weight on my leg, I thought I would now just get up and start dashing about as usual, or, well, moving reasonably normally, anyway.

I should have known better.

First I was very wobbly, and then the pain and stiffness kicked in. Clearly, this getting-back-to-normal business is going to take longer than I expected.

Even so, I can’t begin to tell you just how exciting it is to be able to go to the bathroom independently! My bed has been moved back upstairs and I have finally “taken back control” (that’s a Brexiteer phrase for those outside the UK) of my domestic arrangements. I can’t water the garden yet, but I can get out into the sunshine on my own two feet. It’s wonderful!

So life is slowly getting back to something like normal, or what counts as the new normal, anyway. Most of my meetings still have to be via the Internet but I shall at least be attending church again in person.

None of us quite know what the next few months will be like but I am at least facing them in an upright position and I’m just thankful for that.

Post-Op

In last week’s blog, I told you about the operation I had to repair a fractured femur.

The 24 hours after the operation were not good.

Even in normal times, I take a lot of strong painkillers, so when I have any trauma, I need still more. The medics, however, see how much I am on and are then reluctant to give me any more. That is what happened this time too.

I didn’t sleep at all the night after the op and spent the next day with an increased heart rate and temperature. They kept doing ECGs and giving me paracetamol. I kept telling them I was in pain and exhausted, not ill, and that if they would just give me more pain relief I would be okay.

Eventually, in the evening, one of the nurses cottoned on that if I normally took such a high dose, the little pain relief they were giving me wasn’t even “touching the sides.” At last, they increased my meds and gave them to me more often.

Finally, blissfully, I fell asleep.

I woke at half-past-four in the morning, not expecting to go back to sleep but not caring as at least I had slept, though in the end I did drift off again.

As my temperature was still raised, they put damp cloths on my forehead and, at some point, someone conceived the idea of inflating a plastic glove, filling it with cold water and placing it on my head. In my drug-fuelled stupor I put my hand up to my head and thought, “Oh, they’ve put an octopus on my head.”

Eventually my brain kicked in and I thought, “Of course they haven’t put an octopus on my head!”

I wasn’t in the least concerned either way, however, which just shows how relaxed I was by this point.

When I was more alert, the doctors came and told me how the operation had gone. The good news was that my hip replacement was still intact so they had just had to fix the femur, which they had done with plates.

I had hoped to be up and walking soon after the op but, no. The physios explained that I couldn’t put any weight on my broken leg for a full six weeks. And when they said no weight, they really meant it. All I am allowed to do is get up on one leg, hang onto my Zimmer frame, sit on a wheeled commode and be taken where I need to go, and then perform the manoeuvre in reverse. I can literally only go from chair to commode, from commode to chair, or from commode to bed.

I had also hoped to be able to haul myself upstairs on my bottom when I got home but the physios let me try this in hospital and I couldn’t manage it. My leg was too painful and stiff and, in any case, I wouldn’t have been able to stand up when I got to the top.

I have now been sent home with what they refer to as a “care package.” My bed has been moved downstairs to the living room and a carer comes in to get me washed and dressed in the morning and to put me to bed in the evening.

Mary, my amazing friend and PA, is living with me for the moment and doing literally everything else. We are working again, as I can be wheeled into my office where I am now writing this blog.

I am due to return to hospital in mid-August so that my leg can be X-rayed. I fervently pray I will be allowed to walk again!

–0-0–

Judith Furse is planning to take a break from blogging during August but is looking forward to bringing you new posts in September.

Trauma & Fracture

In last week’s blog, I explained how I tripped over a box of braille documents lying in my hall and ended up in hospital with a fractured femur, awaiting surgery. At that stage I didn’t know whether I had also broken my hip.

So there I was, lying in the Accident and Emergency Department with a broken leg, unable to move and in some pain. Mary, my PA, had kept me company and it was round about this point that she reminded me that I was still wearing my apron. Somehow, I managed to wriggle out of it.

They tried to block the nerve in my leg to help with the pain.

“I’m just going to cut your leg with a scalpel,” the doctor said.

“Okay,” I said. And then, after a moment’s reflection, “Why am I saying it’s okay? It’s not okay!”

My objections were overruled, but in the event the nerve block did not stop the pain. Nor did the morphine.

While I was waiting there, they tested me for coronavirus and MRSA. The COVID test is horrible. They have to swab the back of your throat and they had to use a tongue depressor because I could not override the gagging reflex.

Some time that evening they moved me to the Trauma and Fracture Ward. There they put my leg in traction, which did help a bit with the pain because it lined the bones up. One of the nurses said, “I don’t want to gross you out, but you can actually see the bones moving.”

Well, I couldn’t, as I’m severely visually impaired even at the best of times, so I suppose that that was all right!

Anyway, that’s how my weekend in traction began. The hospital had just started to allow visitors back after lockdown, but only on a strictly controlled basis. Each patient was allowed one visitor for one hour per day. They had to book in advance and they had to wear a mask. Mary organised a rota, so I got to see someone every day, which was brilliant.

The nurses and healthcare assistants were amazing. They were very kind and looked after me extremely well, quickly adapting to my needs as  a visually-impaired person. They introduced themselves, told me what they were doing, and helped me with my food. For instance, I couldn’t manage soup in a bowl in my awkward position, so they put it in a cup. They offered to cut food up for me and told me where everything was on the tray.

The doctors also always introduced themselves and explained what was going to happen.

In many ways, this was one of my better hospital experiences for standards of care. I have, in fact, just become a hospital governor, so I felt a bit like the healthcare equivalent of a secret shopper.

When it came to the operation on Monday, I chose to have an epidural rather than a general anaesthetic as the last time I had had a general anaesthetic I was very sick… But let’s draw a veil over that!

I was told that the doctor who was going to administer the epidural was the best they had. She was a lively Italian lady who amused me by asking one of the doctors, “Who is that new doctor, you know the scruffy one?”

I’m sure there are no scruffy doctors in Italian hospitals!

They gave me a sedative before the operation so that may have shaped my experience of waking up more than any reality. Be that as it may, my impression when I awoke after surgery was that my head was wrapped in a blanket.

I felt like a hibernating hedgehog.

I surmised that it was to stop patients waking and seeing things which might upset them. For obvious practical reasons, that was never going to be a problem for me.

I was just glad to be awake and on the other side of the operation.

To be continued…