Sometimes we are thrust together with people through no choice of our own, or of theirs. Maybe in a queue, a lift, a waiting room, at a concert or on a plane. Those were the days.
Our English default is to remain quiet and to keep our distance – physically and emotionally. To be private, wary and vaguely suspicious. To mistrust. Now we have the perfect excuse – social distancing. There is no longer any pressure to speak, and smiling behind a mask is pointless. We are obliged to keep our distance. We can be safe, unthreatened and unembarrassed, and slightly smug in our self-isolation.
So, imagine being wheeled into a room of seven strangers, where you will be tethered by wires to a bed, made to sleep, eat and survive for at least three days, with no masks and no hiding places. And what’s worse – they are all men, and they all know each other already.
This was my Christmas Day, Cardiac Ward 28.
I am a fairly quiet, private chap who prefers 1:1 conversations to large groups and parties; who likes to ease himself into a social setting rather than make a big ban; and who usually finds women easier to talk to than men. My mother, sisters, wife and daughter were/are all women. And women tend to be less defensive, more open and have better verbal skills. Some even have over-developed verbal skills.
But I digress.
I was relieved to be deposited in a bed in the corner. I felt safer there. I only had one man to deal with on my right, at least initially. This was Keith, born 1935 with a suspected clot on his lung. Across the way were two young guys, Adam and Sam, chatting away. Everyone else was a blur.
I sat at the back of my bed, assessing the situation. A nurse came in to show me how to raise the back of the bed, which inevitably brought me forward and more into the room. I reminded myself that I was a reasonably grown-up man. I had spent 30 years or more in management, meeting all sorts of people and being sociable, engaging, confident and (apparently) interesting.
So why did I feel like a little boy? Maybe it was the pyjamas. Maybe it was the whole surreal experience of being in hospital when I should have been opening my Christmas presents. Or maybe, my inner child who didn’t speak until I was 5 because I was shy and frightened, and because my sister spoke for me, was making a comeback.
Two things helped. One was the constant noise and activity of a busy ward – the frequent checks of temperature, oxygen, and blood pressure, and the distribution of drugs, hot drinks and a snacks. Not to mention nurses with syringes extracting blood or inserting mystery fluids. So no silences to fill.
The other of course is the smart phone. We can all deal with silence or awkwardness by simply holding a 6 x 2 inch piece of technology in front of our faces and pretending there is something important on it.
I did a bit of that. Keith next-door didn’t have a smart phone. But he did have a request. His wife of 61 years had died on Christmas day a year ago. He was unable to put flowers on her grave, so his son had done that today, and sent a photograph. Keith couldn’t access it on his phone, so he needed help.
There is a time when humanity rises above our own self-pre-occupation, and we can do no other than graciously respond. And when we do, we invariably get so much more back than we expect. By the time I left, I had found a connection and a love for this old man which brings tears to my eyes even as I write this sentence.
As we talked – often late at night – he told me about his wife. How you had to work at a relationship and work together. He talked about his two children who lived in the same village, but how his wife had missed not having grandchildren.
I asked him about his memories of the war. He told me how he played in the “practice trenches” near his home, coming home with food and sweets which has been left behind by the soldiers. He remembered hearing the bombs dropping.
Here was an 85-year old man, in the cardiac unit on Christmas Day, a year to the day when his wife had died. But a man without bitterness or regret. He told me that if he could live his life again, he wouldn’t change a single thing. Now there is an epitaph.
Often when we meet people, we find a connection in humour. If we can make someone laugh, it releases any tension, and we know we are accepted and liked. Then, we can build from there. When the nurse me if I had any pain, I would say “yes, this guy next to me in the bed”. Keith blamed me for keeping him awake at night because my heart monitor bleeped when my pulse dropped below 50. He would tell the nurse that I wasn’t allowed to drink tea. And so it went on.
I was less inclined to talk to the other guys. There was a big, very confident man who would parade up and down without his shirt on. Even with Bill, we ended up having a very good conversation about my angioplasty before I went down. He was kind and reassuring, not arrogant or aloof. How easy it is to misjudge people based on appearance of superficial impressions.
By the end of the day, I was not only relaxed, but enjoying myself. Keith and I laughed at the so-called “festive tea” which comprised mild cheddar cheese sandwich, madeira cake in a plastic wrap and a packet of crisps (or optional “easy to chew” skips or quavers). The “festive” was provided by emoticons of holly and a Christmas tree on the menu.
Groups bond often together by shared experiences, even, or maybe especially, tough ones. Every man on the ward was here because of a cardio or respiratory illness. Each one of us was confined to this uncomfortable, noisy ward, missing Christmas Day and missing our loved ones.
But it is often a single experience which builds the solid connection. Ours was to take place when we least expected it.
I had struggled to get to sleep on Christmas Day night. Wards are noisy and bright places at the best of times. I read my book and finally nodded off after midnight into a deep sleep.
I was suddenly and rudely awoken at 3am by a man running past the bottom of my bed shouting loudly, hotly pursued by two nurses. He sprinted to the far end of the ward, where the toilets were. The end-door was locked. There was no escape and he was trapped. There was a scuffle and a commotion.
I watched bleary eyed as he was escorted back down the ward, held firmly by his arms either side like a criminal. He was shouting that he wanted to go home and that they had to let him out. Tubes hung from his arms and, well let’s just he was rather exposed and it was a mercy he was on an all-male ward. The women nurses of course, had seen it all before.
Everyone was awake. The man was persuaded back to his bed and the curtains were drawn. Two security men turned up. More shouting and wrestling. It turned out he pushed a nurse over and kicked another.
To a man, those of us who could stand were out of bed. There was a ground swell of indignation and wanting to do something to “quieten the lunatic” and protect the staff. It was admirable and heroic – this motley crew of elderly cardiac patients with an array of serious heart conditions, who were meant to be avoiding stress and excitement. What could we possibly do? Before we could wade in and save the day, like the half of the Dirty Dozen, a nurse with a needle sedated him.
As for me, with a history of claustrophobia and 3am panic attacks , I was increasingly focussed on managing my growing anxiety. I was trapped in this ward, with no prospect of sleep, no visitors and (I counted) probably 100 hours to discharge, with every 6000+ minutes stretching out interminably. I walked to the reception just to be able to look down the long corridor. I was ready to ask for a sedative of my own.
Instead, I walked back to the ward. “I wonder what entertainment they will lay on for us tomorrow night” I joked. We reflected, chatted and laughed and slowly climbed back into our beds. I was fine now. All I needed was the embrace of human connection, the reality of grounding, and a light dusting of laughter.
I snuggled under my sheet and searched for something to watch on my phone. I discovered Peaky Blinders on iPlayer and an hour later, realised I felt sleepy and closed my eyes.
As it turned out, the next day I was told my angiograph and possible angioplasty had been brought forward to that morning. I had never been so delighted to be told that someone would be sticking things into my heart. So, all my anxiety had been misplaced. Take one day at a time, I coach people I help with anxiety. Sometimes we need to listen to our own advice.
There is a humorous pathos to being in hospital. We could laugh about our condition because we were all in the same boat. We joked with the nurses of course, who were universally warm, caring, patient and helpful.
One of the night nurses was a bubbly West-Indian woman. She breezed in singing “Good Evening” and continued to sing every instruction and question. She sang us her name, and one of the guys heard “Yvonne”. She was called Sipo. She spelled it out for us in musical notes Julie-Andrews-like.We told her about last night’s 3am cabaret. She was firm in her musical response “there will be no noise on my ward after lights out”. Suddenly, we were small boys in a dormitory.
Roger laid out in the end bed, had the temerity to ask for his jug of water to be refilled. “that is not my job” she sang. “I am here to collect your urine bottles and we don’t want to get confused”. She had a point, and laughter spread through the ward like custard on apple pie.
“I love my job”, Sipo sang as she skipped around the ward dispensing our individual medication.
“Yvonne, why can’t you be miserable like the rest of us?” chipped in Robert in bed 4. We all laughed again , as she exited stage right, and slept all the better for her beautiful cameo
I had rediscovered camaraderie. Something we have all missed in these times. And more specifically, I had enjoyed the male camaraderie. A boys’ weekend, full of laughter, mischief and teasing.
I will never see those guys again. As I left, Keith and I thanked each other for helping each other through – understated as men do, but all the more powerful for it. The look in our eyes painted more words than we could ever articulate.
I said I would let him know if I was ever in his village, so that he could hide and lock the doors. We offered me his hand. I hadn’t shaken another man’s hand for so long. I took it and we said goodbye. We were certified Covid-free. But I would have taken the risk anyway.
Sometimes we need to lower our self-defences to make a proper, meaningful and warm human connection.
More on my Christmas Cardiac Experience