I made the dismal walk up to the operating theatre, which looks like a well stocked garden shed. I shed tears standing there waiting for it all to begin, remembering before, that whole scenario of big op, going home alone, diagnosis of cancer. Things I don’t want to remember at all. A doctor in his plastic cap ignored me while a nurse said, “Don’t worry. Lots of ladies cry.”
Well not me. I am not one of those ladies; I just didn’t want to be there again. I could have walked out of course, but I’d signed the form and I was brought up to be a biddable girl.
I woke up with the morphine bag attached and realised that the cut had followed right up the scar from the hysterectomy. It was just like before. I decided to lie back and enjoy the morphine and forget the rest.
I recognise one British nurse from Northern Ireland who was there before. After the first op, I used to wake up and see this line of people with frozen faces at the end of my bed. That nurse used to be in a dark blue uniform and hat, a bit like a life-guard and she used to glare at me as if I had just been accused of child murder. Now she was in a different uniform and seemed deflated somewhat. Perhaps there had been a coup d’etat of some kind; the ward was certainly different. Most of the nurses had hardly any English but they were much friendlier than before, and slightly older, more experienced.
I got up and pottered to the patient’s room with the TV for lunch. I enjoyed having lunch with the other women; a few of them from other parts of the ward were English, most with returning cancer.
We all sat playing with our food, like children, pondering: “Is this fish or is it potato? Where is the fish in this pie, can you spot it? Figures from 200 hospitals just released show that one in twelve or nine million hospital meals go back uneaten. This wastes about £22 million a year. All that money and they can’t even serve real potato or fresh veg.
When I was first in hospital in New Cross near Wolverhampton in 1980 they had a whole shiny kitchen, it probably looked like the VB ward. They cooked food on the premises and had their own nutritionist who had quite high prestige. I made a remark that there was not enough wholemeal bread, and I was told by a nurse that the nutritionist would be coming to see me as a result.
She was a young woman, very intelligent and she appeared at my bed and questioned me about my opinion of the food. After that I always got wholemeal rolls. Good Lord how things have changed!
I suppose we had M Thatcher just after that, the woman who invented soft scoop ice-cream by pumping it with 30% more hot hair, went on to be the great champion of rubbish food. Under Maggie everything started being outsourced, no more cooking in hospitals, or schools, and eventually not in many homes either. I wonder if she realises that she brought about the death of basic British food.
An elderly Indian woman sat with us. She gestured that she’d had a hysterectomy years before, but didn’t know the word for it. When the lunch trolley arrived bearing its cargo of packet fish pie and yogurts, she demanded her food without a please or thank you. That annoys me – so I said “please,” for her.
The person doling out the slop probably didn’t mind, as she was Thai or Philippine and didn’t have any English either. The Indian woman looked at me and smiled. After her lunch she suddenly bellowed for a nurse. I asked her why she couldn’t just walk by herself using her Zimmer frame. At this she got up and did just that, trundling off on her rickety legs. I felt like Alice in Wonderland reproving exotic creatures. She liked me though and we always sat together. Although she didn't have any of what are now called "social skills," i.e. manners she was good fun.
As the delivery of food and drink was intermittent, I went to the kitchen and got some orange juice for the Squaw. She looked baffled, probably thinking I was an enemy as I had groaned loudly about her horrible eructations.
I returned to my bed with its blood spotted sheets. It was changed frequently, everything seemed very clean, but the wound was leaky. I felt anxious and alone. Back in 1980, perhaps because I was so young, I felt quite cosy and protected in hospital. I could chat to women around me; I had visitors from my family of course, my friends and my parent’s friends. We were not far from my home village. A woman working in the hospital, who knew someone who knew one of my mother’s friends, sent down a flower arrangement for me in a small bowl. I remember looking at it and wondering if people would always be so nice to me? An echo of the future perhaps. I always remember that moment, feeling rather indulged and insecure about it.
That was long ago, I am now in that most unwanted category; the middle-aged woman, unless you happen to be a well liked wife and mother of course.
Hospital seemed like a dead halt, a void. It’s wasn’t just that there were so few English speakers, but there was nothing going on to bring in some of the outside to alleviate the bleakness; no trolley coming round with newspapers and sweets, no jolly volunteers bringing you a whiff of the life still going on. To get a paper you had to hope that you could find a nurse who could understand enough to know what you wanted, and that she would be kind enough to get you a paper when she was having her break. There were no chaplains either with their little cards bearing spiritual advice and psalmic verses. There were no radio attachments either, I should have bought in an I Pod, which I don’t have.
I had a nagging worry about visitors, like a prickly hedgehog lodging in my brain; I had told a few people that I was going in, but only for a small op, now I felt very alone. I also needed someone to give me a lift home. I could have been very grown up and just got a cab but I so wanted someone to offer me a lift.
I was worried about my cat and the food in my fridge. I had done a big shop but not sure how long it would be before I could shop again.
While the other beds were surrounded by relations during the day, as a lone, single English woman, my friends were working and I only got visitors at night. There was a lot of hoo-ha about finding someone free but eventually two ladies from my church agreed come and collect me. I was very grateful but I had this horrible certainty that modern hospitals are not good for single people. What I suspected in 1980, had happened.