Get him out of here

At times like these, as I sit for hours in hospital, companion to my sick husband, we run out of words to say and we take to reading.

My husband reads the newspaper. He finds books still too much. I read books but in a different way.

The books I read in hospital take on a surreal quality, as if the world on the page is even more alive because of the surrounding walls and sound.

I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible in this way and hoped to goodness that anything is possible.

This book is such a profound evocation of joy and sorrow and an exploration of the way things can change for people raised in poverty in rural Illinois.

And then I finally forced myself to take up Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance. I’ve had this book on my shelf for a year now and avoided it, preferring instead the escape of fiction, but this book dragged me into reality.

Wright explores the nature of hunger and how it can sharpen your senses. How hunger when it is the compulsive kind, the seemingly voluntary act of refusing to eat that is the hallmark of anorexia, can be so seductive that eating becomes a torture.

I’ve long known the ways in which controlling your food intake can offer the illusion of having control over your entire life, but Wright’s is control taken to a whole new level.

The obsessional activities, the counting of food, the rituals that accompany the eating, are new to me.

I have a third book in store, once I’ve finished Wright’s evocation of awe at the mystery of  ‘starvation syndrome’, she calls it: Lloyd Jones’s The Cage, his newest book which I bought recently after I heard him speak in Hawthorn Readings.

Jones talked about how easy it is to turn other people into the ‘other’ and thereby limit our compassion or responsibility towards them.

Jones’s book is a type of fable that recognises this worst trait in people in a small country town where two strangers arrive. At first they’re welcomed but over time and in subtle ways they’re ostracised until finally they’re set the task of building themselves a metal construction of indescribable proportions that becomes their cage.

Then they’re left locked inside this cage for the townsfolk to gawp at and be appalled by the stink of their shit, for where else can these two men shit, though even so they try to create some semblance of decency in their small prison.

No one knows what has happened to them. No one knows what they have done.

Sitting with my husband, day after day – he in his hospital pyjamas, though for the past week he’s taken to dressing in ordinary clothes by day – you can see how quickly he becomes the ‘other’ in a hospital setting.

How quickly a person becomes an object. This so especially when the ‘caravan’ arrives.

The caravan, my husband’s name for the team of infectious diseases physicians and specialists, who visit him daily along with one, two or three student doctors.

They come in with one of their team wheeling what looks like a mini supermarket trolley on which sits a digital version of my husband’s history.

The head doctors refer to this history from time to time when they offer my husband the latest details on how his infection is faring.

From test results on his blood, it seems my husband’s body is eliminating the infection. His white blood cell count is down and the markers for infection, which began at 152 when he first arrived in hospital, at last known count, were down to 14.

He needs to get them down to under three before the infectious diseases people will be happy.

It’s like a mathematical exam, which he cannot prepare for and he does his best following the medicos’ instructions to pass.

But then things happen, as in three days ago, after three weeks on antibiotics, my husband’s body erupted in a red rash, itchy and inflamed mostly on his legs and around his ankles.

An allergic reaction to the antibiotics, which caused a re-think just as the doctors were about to introduce a PIC line and send him home.

The re-think involves a change of one antibiotic in the hope to settle the allergy, but my husband is on two antibiotics so it involves eliminating the first, seeing whether it’s the culprit and if so, great, if not, they might need to eliminate the second until they can get rid of the allergy and the infection.

A day-by-day, trial and error process.

The doctors watch like hawks hovering above my husband’s bedside sensitive to every nuance and every shift in his condition. All of which is a good thing but it has the effect of leaving my husband feeling like he’s an animal in the zoo with me at times seated beside him, less the specimen but the specimen’s accompanist.

When the caravan arrives and I am there I want to scream at them all, much as I know full well they’re doing an excellent job, they’re doing their best.

I want to scream at them all, ‘Get this man well and get him out of here’.

And I think of Lloyd Jones’s ‘cage’ and the ways in which being made ‘other’ can render you speechless.

I cannot say any such thing to these doctors, only smile meekly when they come by and ask questions when my mind is clear enough to try to understand more.

10 thoughts on “Get him out of here”

  1. Your husband’s legs remind me of the time I had shingles. When I saw the title of your post and noticed the photo—I didn’t read it on the tablet, just forwarded it to the laptop—I was reminded of that time. I had an appointment with an osteopath just as the rash was starting (I didn’t know what it was) and I remember the look on his face when I, in passing, asked him about the spots. It was a mix of panic and revulsion. He wouldn’t treat me. He wouldn’t touch me. All he wanted was for me to get dressed and leave. Okay, a couple of days later when I got to see my GP and he confirmed what was wrong I could see it was an issue but I’ll still never forget the look on my osteopath’s face and if he could I’m sure he would’ve shouted on his aides: “Get him out of here.” Unclean! Unclean! Needless to say I moved my business elsewhere.

    Your talk of hunger reminds me of being a kid. I’m sure your children have said the same to you, “Mum! I’m starving.” Of course I was often reminded I wasn’t starving, that I’d no idea what starvation was and I barely knew what hunger was. It was shortly after that the first images of Biafran famine victims appeared on our TV screen, images that have stayed with me to this day when things that mattered to me more have long been forgotten. I couldn’t tell you the last time my tummy rumbled. Even now I eat too much and ounce by ounce my weight creeps up. Since I stopped working I’ve had to watch what I eat and never before had that been the case; I could eat whatever I wanted and simply burned off the calories. Not now. Now I have to pace myself. I can have another cup of coffee before teatime. And that’s me. I’ve had my biscuit for the afternoon; one hundred calories, there or thereabouts.

    If asked I’d probably say I was an empathetic person. I like to think I am. But I’m not sure how true that is. People say, “I feel for you.” No one ever says, “I think for you.” I really can’t imagine being a little black boy with a distended stomach not knowing where my next meal’s coming from. I donate to charities but I do it because my brain says it’s the right thing to do. I spread my money across several—animals, children, the homeless, the physically impaired, the displaced—and yet there are so many needy people out there who never get a penny from me because I could give away everything I have and there’d still be a need. I make token gestures and don’t delude myself. We’ve all seen the stats. If the world stopped buying arms for a year—for three months!—imagine the good that could be done if the money saved reached the right people.

    I’m glad your husband’s heading in the right direction. No one likes being sick but he strikes me as the kind of man who resents sickness; having an excuse to lie around doing next to nothing for weeks is a burden to be endured. I’m the same. Time’s too valuable to waste on being poorly.

    1. I understand Shingles are horrible, Jim. Thank goodness my husband’s allergy is not the same, but still it causes extreme interest especially among the medicos. As for hunger and empathy, they’re both very human and I reckon these days we don’t know enough about either. I too remember my mother’s mantra when we failed to finish the food our plate: ‘Think of the starving Biafrans’. And I realised even then that the food on my plate would not go from my stomach or plate to them and therefore the injunction puzzled me. Thanks Jim

  2. What a gruesome experience. I hope improvements are rapidly coming and that your husband will be able to go home soon.

    Hospitals are never easy, whether you spend your time waiting or are being rushed into emergency treatment. We feel cheated and angry – well, I often do while I simmer and hold my tongue. And yet, and yet, where would we be without it.

    I have spent more time than I ever wanted to in hospital and I make it my mission these days – after a long and steep learning curve – to at least appear humble, to praise and to thank esp. junior staff who are still insecure and not quite there yet when it comes to human contact skills. It works both ways.
    While I could get up in arms every single time, still, I am looked upon as a “case” or merely a “subject” or worse, are reduced to the illness, rather than the person, I in turn will not stop being one with as much compassion and politeness as I can muster.
    Call it a game or a survival technique.

    As for Lloyd Jones, excellent choice. I just finished “Here at the end of the world we learn to dance” which is not quite there with “Mr Pip” but close.
    Whereas Elizabeth Strout, just marvelous.

    Best wishes.

    1. Thanks for the good wishes, Sabine. Gruesome is the right word but there are consolations as in the books I’ve read and things I’ve earned but what a price to pay and more so for my husband than for me. Things are on the mend though, or so it seems. We hope.

  3. Your depiction of hospital patients as “the other” reminds me of an experience I had a few years back when I was suffering from hip pain. I finally broke down and took a cane with me on an excursion to the city, and in a crowded market found myself literally crossing paths with a younger, African-American woman. She threw me a beautiful smile and gestured for me to walk ahead of her, and I thought, “of course, here I am, a woman with graying hair and a cane.” And I felt like an “other” to myself. The fact that she was black and I white added to my sense that I with my privilege was still someone worthy of her solicitude, rather than someone to pass without noticing.

    I guess being other can have its benefits as well as its injustices. I wasn’t used to seeing myself in that way, but since that time I have become less set in an identity.

    1. It is indeed a sobering experience being ‘othered’, Laurel. As you describe and anything that marks us out from the mainstream, anything – a cane, grey hair, arm in a sling, black skin, being over weight, covered in tattoos, anorexic – you name it and we notice other people looking at us through distant eyes. It’s lovely to hear from you here, Laurel.

  4. My memory of him is regal and sweeping. I saw him as very patriarchal, the leader of the pack, just a little off-centre surrounded by equally powerful members en masse of the opposite sex. I’m glad he’s ok. I also can attest to the horror that is shingles xxx

  5. I’ve heard the term “the other” used in reference to ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities, but never hospital patients, so this is particularly insightful.

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