It was a long and mostly sleepless night. Oncology Ward 64, Room 9 has four beds. I’m bed B. For reasons not explained to me yet, I share the room with three ladies, all of whom are considerably sicker than I am. Or at least their cancers are more advanced than mine, which amounts to the same thing. The nighttime hours were punctuated with random, involuntary body noises. Snores, belches, coughs, farts and unidentified gurgling sounds. Nurses with flashlights came and went, tending to IV pumps, and delivering pain relief meds. In the brief, quiet interludes I lay in the darkness listening to the traffic sounds coming from the street below, and watching splinters of light sweep across the suspended ceiling.
For a long time I listened to Mrs. Gang in bed A to my left. I don’t think she’s doing so well. Her breathing is quick and shallow. Between each short breath she whispers “Ay-Ya” to herself. “Ay-Ya… Ay-Ya… Ay-Ya… Ay-Ya…” Over and over for what seems like hours. I think it must be her way of dealing with her pain. Mrs. Gang is Mandarin Chinese and doesn’t speak any English. When I see her this morning I want to ask if there is anything I can do for her, but my Mandarin is worse than her English. The best I can do is smile in what I hope is a sympathetic and compassionate way. She’s lying in the same fetal position under her thin sheet as when I arrived on the ward yesterday. She’s staring in my direction, but I can’t tell if she’s looking at me or through me.
After a merge breakfast – I’ll save my polemic on hospital food for another day – and “Bloods,” that’s daily samples to go off to the hematology lab, we settle into the routine of the day. Today is Saturday. Basically, nothing much happens in hospital at the weekends unless you are considered an emergency. The consultants and surgeons will all be at their private practices, or on the golf course today. So, it’s a four hourly cycle of “Ob’s” – blood-pressure, blood oxygenation, and temperature, and not much else in-between to pass the time.
Bed C is Colleeen. It’s hard to put an age on her, maybe sixty, but she appears more like eighty. She looks incredibly fragile, and walks slowly with a stooped shuffle. She has a sallow, sunken face with sharp, bird-like features and darting, intelligent eyes. Her skin is a translucent pale yellow color and stretched drum tight over her bony cheeks. Like someone has stuffed a skull into a condom. She is mostly bald on top, with very fine straggly gray hair hanging limply at the sides and front. I can’t look at her without thinking of Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Show.
Colleen spends a good bit of her time standing up, pottering around her corner of the room talking quietly to herself. “Today’s Saturday. Yes, Saturday. Tomorrow’s Sunday.” She also diligently makes long lists on a notepad. At first I thought she was probably a bit, you know, doolaley. But after talking to her I can report that no, contrary to appearances Coleen is as sharp as a tack. Her cancer is breast or lung, not sure which, but it affects her breathing. When she’s not berating her husband on the phone, or talking to herself, she makes a constant, quivering “Mmmm… Mmmm… Mmmm… Mmmm…” sound, like she’s having some kind of inappropriate dirty fantasy. Yesterday I listened through the flimsy privacy curtain, while they drained a litre of fluid out of her chest.
Bed D is Chuck. That’s not her name, it’s what she calls me and everyone else who comes into the room. ” ‘Ello Chook.” Chuck is fifty something, and works in a warehouse in Manurewa. She has a rosy round face, one good breast and not a hair on her head. She’s on her third chemo cycle, and has picked up a cold from someone at work. that’s not good. After three months of chemotherapy, a cold can kill you. She spends most of the day hunched under a blanket shivering. She seems remarkably good humored about her situation, but is clearly not having a good time.
So that’s it. My universe for the next week. I feel a bit of a fraud really. These people are are all in pretty bad shape. I, on the other hand, with my invisible bleeding, healthy tan and full head of hair look like like an attention seeking impostor. The nurses come and check on me every few hours for “Ob’s”, but otherwise I’m left to my own devices.
I amuse myself by wandering the corridors, observing the other inmates, their visitors, and the nursing staff going about their business. Like everything else about this cancer business, it’s amazing how quickly the novel and unexpected can become prosaic and routine. After only a few days, this scary and alien environment is starting to feel like a familiar second home. I know my way to the kitchen and the TV room. I know where the laundry cupboard is if I need a fresh towel or another blanket. I’ve figured out the idiosyncrasies of the shower, and how to adjust my bewilderingly complicated electric bed.
In just a few days I’ve become like the archetypal old prison lag in the movies. The ancient lifer with no teeth who sweeps up and hands out the library books. Benign, institutionalized and largely overlooked, he’s been inside so long nobody, including him can remember what he’s there for.
Probably just as well. I have a feeling this will not be my last visit to this place.