“The proper lunatics get the best TV”Bruce Powell
“Is it Christmas Day?” I asked.
Apparently irony was highly resistant to the effects of brain damage.
The nurses kept asking me what the time was. If they’d bothered to look, there was a clock and calendar hanging above the door. The red-neon numbers and letters were jumbled, so I just guessed.
I was definitely in a hospital but which one?
I couldn’t remember if I knew?
There were nurses everywhere. One who was always there when I woke up.
There were people who appeared periodically. They had stethoscopes, upbeat banter and strong hands. School gym teachers, but scarier and didn’t take “Ow!” for an answer.
Physio-terrorists I think we used to call them, behind their backs.
There were also piles of food trays and bandages, ball-point pens in top pockets and beeping machines on trolleys passing by. So much stuff to make sense of.
Suddenly I’d be awake.
Someone was poisoning me; talking to me; imprisoning me in the gloom; controlling me with flashing green and red lights.
Befuddled by the isolation, I cocked a leg over the cot-side to escape. The tubes emerging from near my right nipple, and poking out from under today’s paper pants, slowed me down. Both were secured to the side of the bed, daring me to escape and leave a key part of myself, dangling from the rails.
“One more escape attempt and the restraints are going back on,” smiled a sinister nurse.
Periodically someone would kneel at the side of the bed with a big plastic measuring jug and empty my catheter.
“Ooh, well done Bruce. That’s almost a litre already,” they cooed generously.
I must have calmed down, earned the nurse’s trust, as the door to my windowless world was now left open. If I pulled myself up and over to one side, half of the green and white ‘EXIT’ door was visible at the end of the gleaming corridor. Periodically it whished open, offering a tantalising glance of life outside. There was a window in the corridor too, fleeting glimpses of day and night passing through the blank corridors of ICU.
When you work in ICU, you realise that the patients get to a point where they’ve had enough of the confinement. That’s when they become a pain in the arse. The staff didn’t mind that. Having the energy to complain and disobey was always a good sign. It meant that this patient would win their battle to live.
One day all my charts were scooped up under one rose-tattooed arm, and more unfamiliar people conversed at the end of my bed. They seemed upbeat and unusually casual. The night nurse had popped her head in and wished me luck.
Intensive care nurses don’t normally like nattering with patients. They like a sound asleep, motionless client, who doesn’t poo in the bed on their shift. Whereas me, despite a mouth full of wires, bloodied lips and tongue, prattled all night.
With little or no ceremony, the bed’s wheels were unlocked and I was pushed into the corridor and through the double doors. No cake, no good luck card. ICU didn’t care for the critically talkative.
Down a long white corridor.
“Trauma Unit” the tatty, plastic sign announced.
The doors weren’t automatic, far from it, they were stiff and battered. We pushed them wide open with a crunch of the bed-frame. Inside was a much louder, scruffier new home.
It felt intimidating at first, like starting at a senior school having been the biggest kid in the infant’s playground. No more one-on-one nursing and spoon-fed soup. No constant monitoring, just that squeezy cuff-thing tight on the arm every few hours. I wasn’t alone anymore. There were 2 beds in my cramped new room, divided by a curtain. No more dim-calm and sterile-solitude.
The good thing about the trauma unit was that no one asked you exactly what time it was, just the date, and I still made that up. I wasn’t convinced that the exhausted nurses knew the answer either, but it didn’t seem to matter. I had rediscovered my mobile-phone in a scant bag of possessions sent from ICU. I hid it in the top drawer of my bedside cabinet. It didn’t seem to work but I had it, and they didn’t, so that was good.
The trauma unit was fertile ground for seeds of scrambled logic and paranoia. So many more stimulations and interactions.
It seemed a good idea to untie the plastic tube, anchoring my wedding-tackle to the cot-side, just in case my new room mate went banzai and attacked me.
“Meth-user,” I figured out loud.
He clawed at his neck dressings and scratched his face until it bled. Sure, I was a bit vague as to why I was there, but I must have remembered some stuff from the last 25 years.
Our nurse came bustling in, buxom and bossy, alerted by Meth-guy playing the drums on a pay-per-view TV with his breakfast cutlery. She spotted me struggling with my plastered hands, to undo the ties holding my privates to the bed.
“Why me?” I could see her eyes. “Which one of these crazies shall I strangle first?”
I pulled my best crooked metallic grin in unanimity with the long-suffering nurse.
Meth-boy added vocals to his drumming.
“She’s an easy lover” he roared.
Interactions and conversations were just fuel on my strange little campfire of paranoia. On the bustling trauma ward, you got spoken to, if you spoke, so now I kept quiet and secretly tried to make my phone work. The screen was smashed and the innards were hanging out. I optimistically bashed it with my spoon, pummelling my iPhone in time to the meth-head’s drumming.
That way the guards were distracted and wouldn’t notice me hatching my schemes.
“The Great Escape” had taught me that little ruse. I would call an Uber, late at night. The driver could wait for me to slide down the drainpipe from the ward’s window. Or I might just jump down, or knot a rope with my sheets, slide down to the street and run. Or walk out dressed as a vicar. I might evade security disguised as a Russian labourer; hide under layers of leaves and branches in a departing truck.
The plan was quite hard to keep simple. Ideas kept leaping into my head, talking to me, scheming and plotting my escape. It was tricky to make a plan.
Might end up in solitary confinement again. Just me and my baseball glove.
They tied Meth-boy up. Not just some bed-based gonad restraint like mine, but a rubber room to bounce himself sane. I kept quiet about my vivid, violent dreams. My every waking hour could yet turn out to be a familiar and yet peculiarly abstract, hallucination.
Anita was there again.
We lay squeezed on the bed together. She gently held my hand and tickled my palm if I fidgeted.
Soon after, the catheter and chest drain left me with some nurse-tugging and me-cursing.
Without warning, one day I was whisked down to the hospital’s wipe-clean waiting area in a wheelchair. Then through another sliding door and out into the real world. The sun was warm on my beard. Fresh air whipping up my pyjama bottoms, reminding me of open air life, had me in floods of tears. For the first time, I felt self-conscious about my blubbing.
“Hay fever” I smiled soggily at the ambulance driver.
Next stop was a private rehabilitation hospital.
It had paintings of former directors on its walls, carpeted consulting areas, cake and ‘care teams’.
There was a locked, vinyl-floor area’d ward and some open, free tea and coffee places too. I was allowed access to both, which was great, because everyone knew that,
“The proper loons got the best TV.”
I would sit there late at night, watching the cable feed. I just had to knock on the reinforced glass door and the night staff would smile and buzz me out to go to bed. It wasn’t by any means “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, but there were definitely some who were more unusual than me.
“What on earth is he doing?”
“For God’s sake.”
“Honestly what does he look like?”
Anita peered through the reinforced glass entrance door into the sparse lounge area. Just a ring of red-plastic covered sofas, encircling a TV. Bruce was wandering around the room.
Aimlessly? Far from it.
He was introducing himself to other brain-injured patients, shaking hands and checking dressings. None of the other patients queried the pale grey, Qantas-monikered pyjamas that this friendly “doctor” was wearing.
They probably wouldn’t remember him either.
Anita buzzed to be allowed in.
Although Bruce was free to roam where he liked, he preferred to hang out in the rehab hospital’s secure area. That ‘special’ place, had a TV-remote.
Bruce would surreptitiously tuck the treasured controller inside the plaster-cast, covering his right hand, and then bury his shattered hand into his dressing gown’s deep fluffy pocket. Just to be sure.
At dinner time, he’d hide the remote under the sofa’s cushions, amongst the fluff and the toenails. Come back for it later.
“What are you doing, Bruce?” Anita asked.
“I’m just checking things.”
“I don’t really know”, he smiled.
Anita hugged him warmly, reaching around his embrace to hoik up his precariously sagging pyjama bottoms. It was all kind of funny, but not at all.
Graham was younger than me, funny and foul-mouthed. He was tattooed down his neck and had a massively swollen head on one side. He would tell stories of his drug-fuelled past and motorbike crashes with no helmet on. His wife had shaved private parts.
I only mention that because he would try to show me photos.
“For God’s sake G! Put that away!”
I wasn’t entirely sure how I was progressing, but I was damned sure I was better than him.
I played the shuffling, soup-sucking cripple for a few weeks. Eventually, I was allowed to “gently” start exercising. I would limp to the rehab gym and do some ‘stepping over things’ and ‘stiffness-stretching’.
There was an uncommonly gentle physio, whose name I forget. Confusingly she had a man’s name, something like Sam or Jo, but I never told her. I couldn’t exactly tell what shouldn’t be confusing and what shouldn’t be baffling.
Jo/Sam would repeatedly remind me that rehab wasn’t meant to be competitive.
“Why have horizontal bars opposite each other then?”
I’d meet the stare of some athletic octogenarian and aim to do deeper, faster squats than they were managing. I’d bang out 20 knee bends, crouching so low that my testicles threatened to pop out from under my shorts.
Once I’d dispensed with the ‘nut challenge’, it was onto the ‘balancing machine’ and that arse-wobbling contraption with the loop you hook around your bum cheeks. Even then, there were prizes to be had. I turned the power up to max and tried not to look too surprised as my buttocks slapped together at over 100 beats per minute.
Beat that then!
Time ambled along in the rehab hospital. It was more like a health spa really. I began to shower myself and choose my own meals via the hospital’s online ordering system. I even got my own bedside TV controller. So many programmes to watch and forget.
I had a new room-share-buddy named Pierre. He was patient with me when I cried. He mostly just listened, gazing quizzically quietly at me, never saying much. As time inched forwards, I became discernibly more mobile and a tiny smidge more aware of myself.
Pierre would not improve. I think he had a brain tumour that not even his courage and kindness could hold at bay. He told me that the doctors had moulded him a rigid, skin-tight, plastic mask. They would anchor him down by his face in a stream of high energy particles and gnaw away at his merciless cancer.
We shared many weeks chatting, reminiscing and for my part, farting a lot. I tried to be polite and only fart when Pierre was asleep, but twin-bed familiarity rapidly broke that decorum. I blamed the endless protein shakes and mashed vegetables for my windy troubles. Pierre suggested that I try the steak or chicken options and then I realised that he had 3 pages of online menu choices and me just the one. I was “soft diet” only, pulses and porridge, until my jaw and wires were all removed.
Pierre’s cruel brain irradiation wasn’t all bad. The sessions made him nauseous so I helped him out with his chicken korma. He did however really like the protein drinks, and we came to an arrangement.
The dietitian came to see me, interrupting a classic episode of James T Kirk’s Star Trek. The care team were mystified as to why I wasn’t regaining the weight with all those ‘special’ nutrient drinks.
“You aren’t drinking your protein shakes are you? You’re giving them to Pierre”.
“He really likes them,” I argued lamely.
“Don’t make us put a nose-tube in,” the dietitian warned me,
“AND……Stop feeding Pierre. He isn’t allowed to drink those drinks. He’s a diabetic. You should know better. You’re a doctor!”
“I used to be a fucking doctor,” I hissed under my breath.