Strange things happen when you stay in hospital for any length of time. I imagine prison is similar. And the Big Brother house. And maybe Farmer Jack’s. It’s kind of like being institutionalised, I suppose. The real world fades into the background, and you’re suddenly immersed in this parallel universe where warm white bread is considered passable as toast and instant coffee is a valuable foodstuff. Normal rules cease to apply, and suddenly it’s okay – not just okay, but encouraged – to go about your everyday business in a pair of slippers and a gown that exposes your bottom, wheeling along a transportable oxygen tank that says, I think, “asthma chic”.
A couple of weeks ago – long enough ago, that is, for me to be able to talk about the experience with a wry smile and a swearword – I spent a few nights in hospital with Ben. Once we’d got through the whole lifesaving exercise, we settled into ward life, which was weird, but strangely easy to become accustomed to. I didn’t sleep much, so I had plenty of time to consider its oddities, as follows:
1. There is no night-time in hospital. Oh yeah, I reclined my armchair and changed into my pyjamas every night, but 7pm was very much like 10pm which was very much like 2am which was very much like, oh, you get it. No one sleeps. It’s brightly lit. Machines beep. Nurses chat. Dads order pepperoni pizza REALLY LOUDLY and ask it to be delivered to the ward at 11pm. Ventolin is administered at 20-minute intervals. Patients are wheeled in at odd hours, and you’re forced to stay awake to listen to the diagnosis, because NOSY.
2. There is no personal space in hospital. I “slept” closer to the mum whose child shared a room with Ben than I do with my own husband. Our feet touched!
3. Some people use the hospital as a childcare service. For fucking real. On the second night that we were in hospital, a four-year-old boy arrived in the bed next to us. His mum goes to the nurse, “Oh! I just have to pop home for something,” waved at the kid, and disappeared. She came back FIVE HOURS LATER, AT MIDNIGHT. The nurse asked me to keep an eye on him, ‘cos he kept trying to escape.
4. Self-grooming is non-existent. I don’t believe I looked in a mirror the entire time I was in hospital. On the day I (finally) got home I looked in the bathroom mirror and a saw a dramatic black chin hair waving to me. The fuck?! I’d simply forgotten to groom. I’d showered, certainly, but the rest had fallen by the wayside. You’re lucky I hadn’t started wearing Crocs.
5. You could do worse than getting on side of the woman who delivers the tea and coffee. She hated me to begin with, and told me off for putting my cardigan on the WRONG CHAIR. And I thought, fuck this, you WILL LOVE ME AND MY ASTHMATIC SON. We won her over, in the end (Ben complimented her on her chocolate mousse) and we hugged her on the day we left. I miss that lady, and her Styrofoam cups.
6. The kindness of relative strangers knows no bounds.
7. Chocolate bar calories don’t count while you’re in hospital. I ate so many fucking Kit-Kats, it’s untrue. This was mainly to do with needing change for the FUCKING CAR PARK, but whatever the reason, I ate all the chocolate.
8. Weird situations stop being weird, and it’s only weeks after the event that you go, shit, dog, that was weird. For instance: I had to wheel Ben’s oxygen tank behind him when he went to have a poo. I had to stay in the disabled toilets to watch him poo, just in case he got tangled in the oxygen tank. I found nothing strange about this at the time. I do now. Similarly, on night three, Ben and I found ourselves playing dominoes in the the hospital’s radio studio with two enthusiastic teenagers and one small girl who insisted on being called ‘princess’ and demanded to go on air to talk about Frozen, or some shit. At the time I was like, yeah, just your average Tuesday night, but now I can see that this was most irregular.
9. You will ask “when do you think we might go home?” more times than you will ask “do I have a long black hair protruding from my chin?”
10. Nurses aren’t paid enough. I don’t know what an average nurse’s wage is, but whatever it is, it’s not enough. I’m forever indebted to these wonderful, wonderful men and women.
11. There’s nothing like an extended hospital stay to put your own problems into perspective. Yeah, Ben had a severe asthma attack, but he was okay within a couple of hours and back to complimenting the tea lady on her chocolate mousse (not a euphemism). Other families aren’t so lucky. We were on the neurology and cardiology ward, which meant brain tumours and heart problems (I think). I stood in the parents’ kitchen one day and heard a mum ringing her work and asking them to keep her job open for her, ‘cos her daughter had a brain tumour and she was going to be in the hospital indefinitely. She could hardly talk for crying. And then, on the last day we were in hospital, a teenage boy was brought into our room. He’d had a brain tumour removed earlier that day, but couldn’t speak, and was paralysed down the right-hand side of his body. His dad explained that they were from Northern Queensland, but had come to Perth for the operation because they had no family in Brisbane. They were going to be in hospital for the foreseeable future, and mum and dad didn’t plan on leaving their son’s side. Yes, that certainly put my chin hair into perspective, I can tell you.