Cabrini Hospital, Sunday.
I sit in a chair beside my hospital bed, my foot propped up on a stool, elevated with a pillow. I cannot get access to the Internet because the server for Cabrini hospital cuts out from time to time and now at nine in the morning is one of those times.
I sit opposite a woman named Doreen, the bane of my life since I arrived here, not only my life, but everyone else’s in this ward, staff and patients alike.
A few days ago, Doreen had a hip replacement that went wrong. It popped out and they needed then to repeat it. Two anaesthetics in close succession. Doreen came out of it all with a new hip and a load of dementia.
She talks to herself incessantly, loud angry conversations.
‘Annette,’ she says, ‘Annette get me out of here. Annette, they’re trying to kill me. Annette they want to cut me into pieces.’
My usual supplies of compassion dwindle. Like the other two women in the ward after Doreen has gone on for an hour or two, particularly in the evening, when we are trying to doze off, we start to chastise her. We know it is useless. She cannot understand. Her mind is not her own. But her incessant shouting and calls for help leave us desperate.
‘Why don’t you just shut up,’ Elsie says. But Doreen uses the insult as further fuel for her delusions. We three other women in the ward are part of the conspiracy to keep her imprisoned. We are her jailers. We must be her jailers, Doreen tells us because we refuse to unlock her from her cage. We refuse to unlock the metal bars that imprison her on either side.
We talk to Doreen almost as an instinctive response to a voice that calls out and she responds because ours are voices in her ears, but she does not know to whom she calls.
I watch a new drama unfold as Doreen demands to go to the toilet. The nurse with the aid of a four-pronged stick tries to get her there but Doreen will have none of it.
‘I can’t get my balance.’
The nurse cajoles.
‘You’ve walked all your life,’ she says. But Doreen refuses. Back in bed, they fetch Doreen a pan.
Doreen, according to her daughter, Annette who visits in the afternoon, has been a strong and independent woman all her life.
‘It’s the anaesthetic that’s done this to her. She’s not my mum anymore.’ Annette turns her head to hide her tears.
Elsie is nauseous for some unknown reason. She has broken her pelvis. Her bed is diagonally opposite mine and I cannot avoid the sound even as I can avert my eyes. Two and a half kidney bowls of vomit, later and Elsie slides further down the bed, her face pale with pain and effort.
Between Doreen’s raving and Elsie’s vomiting, I am ready to scream.
Cabrini, Monday morning.
Doreen has just instructed a nurse to make a phone call to her daughter. Her memory absence is selective. She knew the phone number but needed the nurse to dial for her. She also has macular degeneration and spends a great deal of time plucking at imaginary threads in the air. Her fading vision combines with her paranoid delusions. She sees things that are not there.
Elsie and Lois discuss their belief that although Doreen talks about her son John, he does not exist. She has two daughters only, Annette and Trixie.
‘All I need now is to hear that that woman, Julia Gillard, gets up. That’ll fix my day.’
‘You can’t trust the media,’ Lois says.
‘But when it comes to someone stabbing you in the back or robbing a bank, who can you count on?’ Doreen chimes in but the other two ignore her.
I stay out of the conversation. I cannot bear to add politics to the mix.
‘If only they’d say you can stop voting once you reach a certain age,’ Elsie says. She resents compulsory voting. She resents change. She resents the idea that a left leaning government might retain control. It’s enough to set her vomiting all over again.
Each night they put Doreen in the corridor so that we others can sleep. From eleven last night was quiet. Quiet until 5am when they came in as usual to take blood pressure, temperatures and fill out their report forms. A typical hospital story.
Doreen is 82, Elsie is 84, and Lois the oldest at 86 has had a successful hip replacement.
Is this the future to which I might look forward?
‘Touch wood I’ve never had a broken bone,’ Lois says, and nods at my leg in plaster.
‘Neither have I,’ Doreen says, ‘but I’ve had a broken heart.’ It sounds almost poetic until Doreen begins to rant again about how ‘I got kidnapped and they dumped me here.’
‘You’re here so they can heal you,’ Lois says. ‘None of us wants to be here.’
‘They doped me. That’s why I’m like I am,’ Doreen insists.
No Temazapan for me that first night because my doctor, whom I had not yet seen, did not prescribe it. Painkillers only. I am off the painkillers, though they keep offering them to me, but I cannot get to sleep.
The night nurse, who alternates between the strict school madam full of prohibitions and injunctions and a kindlier soul, broke the rules and gave me one on the second night. I had cracked finally. The lights the constant chatter and the noise. I burst into tears, which I tried to hide from her, but even in the half darkness she must have seen.
I can imagine my medical notes – ‘patient distressed and agitated’. If my distress enabled the help I needed to get to sleep that night, so be it. Simply asking did not help.
Last night I felt like one of the three mutineers, determined to stand my ground in my bid for sleep against the constant onslaught of Doreen’s raving.
Cabrini, Monday afternoon.
Annette, Doreen’s daughter, arrives. Once again she goes through the painful process of trying to orientate her mother.
‘I’d rather die,’ Doreen says. ‘Don’t touch me. Who are you?’
‘I’m your daughter, Mum. You’re just floating around in your head, having one of your fuzzies, You’re just not yourself.’
Annette and the nurses encourage Doreen to eat and to walk. She refuses.
Three staff test Doreen’s ability to put her feet on the ground. They confer.
As the day progresses Annette finally begins to get some sense out of her mother. Doreen talks about nightmares that have felt so real she believed them to be true.
Midafternoon and the grey suited doctor arrives.
‘What have you been up to, you naughty girl,’ he says to Doreen. ‘Why didn’t you keep your legs in place? And where did that wedge go to? It’s supposed to stay between your legs.’
He draws the curtains around Doreen, while Annette stands outside. I cannot hear his words to Doreen only mumbles.’ The doctor draws back the curtain and turns to Annette,
‘She’s hallucinating.’ His tone is one that suggests accusation and disbelief.
‘We’ll just have to put the hip back in again.’
The doctor leaves. Annette turns to me.
‘Did you hear that? He blames Mum. As if it’s her fault. And now more surgery. Look what the last two times have done to her.’
It matters not. The doctor orders a psycho-geriatrician. He will keep a check on Doreen’s mind post surgery. He will review her medication.
That night after a third bout of surgery Doreen sleeps in the ward. She is sedated and snores loudly. I use earplugs and beg for yet another sleeping pill. I do not need or use them at home. But hospital care calls for drastic measures.
Cabrini Hospital Tuesday Morning, Home ward bound.
The doctor finally arrived to visit me last night after a two-day wait. He checked the results of my CT scan and has decided to keep the cast on for ten days to give the bone – my tibia – time to heal. If it moves, I will need surgery.
So at the moment I am home here on a couch, trusty laptop on my lap, my leg propped up and hoping that my tibia does not move.
I am free of pain, unless I move in particular ways and free of painkillers with all their side effects. I am more able to think, but I am unable to move with any vigour.
Judging by the experience of the other women in my ward I have little to complain of, except perhaps for what the future might hold should I be lucky enough to live that long.
No doubt this applies to all of us.