The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, April 08, 2013


Seeing beyond the grave                                                                  

Touch: When I woke from the anaesthetic both eyes were bandaged.  I could feel the plastic shield and plasters.

Boundaries were detected by running my hands along the bed rails and translating tactile impressions to knowledge of hospital furniture.  Likewise with the plastic tubes sprouting from both wrists.

Hearing: At first it was difficult to tell much about the nurses other than their gender, having to rely entirely on voices.  That didn’t last long proving the extraordinary ability of the body to adapt.

Unable to see, other senses automatically tweaked up their levels to fill the gap. Once the effect of the drugs had gone I strained to know more of my environment and carers.

A map of the recovery ward was assembled based on the proximity of sounds as people came and left.  The groans and snores of sleepers helped locate other beds, and the tone of voice used by staff and visitors seemed to indicate the severity of the patient’s operation.

But who were my carers?  With three shifts every 24 hours there were plenty to keep the imagination active. 

Nurses who sounded extra compassionate were clearly young and new to the game while the no-nonsense women who marched into my curtained cubicle arresting my attention with blood-pressure cuffs were the old hands.

This is not a complaint, though a 4 am check could have waited awhile.

Every day the hospital’s 15 operating theatres wheel out the sliced and stitched, the opened and closed, the removed and replaced into one ward – each patient differently traumatized.  The place was an airport without planes, arrivals and departures round the clock.

Some wanted to demonstrate their machismo showing that no surgeon’s scalpel was going to cut them down.  One loud mouth with his spine drilled and screwed yet again in complex orthopaedic work was determined to prove nothing would keep him away from the exit.

His diction was so clear he must have been an actor hired by the hospital to clear the ward. If this Lazarus could walk – so could we.

I tried, but could only make the toilet.  This provided more clues.  Some nurses held my hand with a wife’s intimacy; others preferred a wrist or elbow while the male nurses just offered a shoulder.  All smelt soap-sweet.

A fellow patient recovering from bladder surgery offered to assist with a midnight promenade creating a brief collegiate atmosphere.

Back in bed his blood pressure almost ruptured the sphygmomanometer.  He loudly blamed it on excessive exercise. I could imagine his outraged family ripping off my bandages to revenge the damage I’d done to dear old grandpop.

Unable to see, my ears compensated - tuned like airport radar dishes searching for faint and faraway blips - picking up every word and tone.

Visitors probably thought the eyeless and motionless hulk in the corner could be ignored, but in fact I was a high-tech receiver of every subtle sound, putting their platitudes through my cynicism meter, sifting sentences for hidden meanings and false tears.

Were they really coping without Mom and wanting her to rest – or cunningly pushing for her rapid return and regular meals?  Some families used the opportunity to catalogue complaints of life at home – subtly encouraging the patient to stay in hospital.

Still blindfolded I thanked my invisible carers when wheeled home and the surgeons during bandage-free post-op visits.  I know what they look like – miracle workers.

Back home and bandage free I’ll never know whether the nurses were pretty or plain, the ward walls pastel or puce.  I could go back but the experience has gone.  You can’t step into the same river twice, or a recovery room.

Yet the person I’m most indebted to will never get my gratitude.  Man or woman, young or old, outgoing or reserved? I hope they loved and were loved, and the nurses gentle on that last goodnight.

If only I could hear that most decent person’s voice, feel their touch, hear their story, know why they donated their eyes so others can see - and say: I will use your precious gift to tell of your generosity and hope others may follow.  God bless you.  Duncan Graham

(First published in The Sunday Post 7 April 2013)

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