By Ken Puddicombe
First published Wednesday, December 30, 1992
In The Globe And Mail, Toronto
“Why is it that people have to get old and sick and suffer in bed. Why couldn’t the sky just open up and take them away?”
My wife had asked me this after my first visit, and it was not too difficult to understand her question over the next few days.
I hesitated before entering the ward. Would I see the old lady, Mrs. Black, who was in the bed across from my wife? I didn’t relish sitting there, noticing her again with her head propped on the pillow. She always seemed to look pale, the skin wrapped taut around her cheek bones, tubes in her nostrils from bottles hanging at her side. My wife hadn’t slept much in the past two nights and I could see why. Mrs. Black breathed heavily through her mouth, a consumptive, laboured, hacking motion; I could her the air wheezing, like a pump oscillating rhythmically.
As I entered the room, Mrs. Black’s daughter was sitting in the chair next to her mother. The daughter appeared hardly to have moved from the spot she had been in the last time I visited. Her insistent, plaintive cry still rang in my ears: “Mum, can you hear me; I love you.” She had said this so many times that I knew the tone and pitch, could feel the sorrow deep down as she seemed to pull the words from the inner recesses of her heart.
Mrs. Johnson, the woman in the adjacent bed, was in her seventies but with her grey thinning hair and frail body I thought she surely must have felt a lot older. Her hands were swollen and puffy; through the tightly wrapped bandage I could see her severely distorted knuckles as she tried to hold the newspaper she was reading. The papers kept slipping from her grasp and she ponderously picked the pages up again and again; I thought it was like trying to hold a piece of paper when gloves in the middle of winter. There was little emotion in her pale, apathetic face, but her deep blue eyes scanned the newspaper relentless. Every now and then she twisted her head to the side so her daughter could put Jell-O into her mouth, the green, transparent mass wiggling on the large spoon every time it was raised.
There was Mrs. Carter, who was motionless, except for her head rotating from side to side, watching everyone in the room through thick large-rimmed glasses. Mrs. Carter kept trying to adjust the bed even though it had reached its highest point. When she pressed the button to operate it a whirring, squealing, screeching sound came out.
The nurse rushed in shortly after and asked if she was trying to break the bed. Mrs. Carter said: “I just want a pee, just a little pee. Can’t you give me a bedpan?”
The nurse responded by pulling the electric plug. She said: “You will have to use the toilet. We don’t have time to babysit you all day.” Then she stomped out of the room, leaving Mrs. Carter to return to her button.
Both Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Black were in diapers, but the changes were few and far between. And because of this the smell was overpowering, like passing through a cemetery and encountering a partly decayed body not buried deep enough. I thought of the irony of how fragile the human body is: about how we are “once a man and twice a child.”
A friend had commented too long before about how little care is given to the aged and the helpless in hospital. He felt that his mother had practically been abandoned once she was diagnosed as terminally ill. I wondered if it were any different for those on the brink, for here was ample evidence of the indignity they could be subjected to. It is almost as if the unwritten rule is: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
The final day—checkout time. I entered the ward and the first thing I saw was the bed, a white sheet pulled tightly over the mattress, a grey blanket halfway up, with the top folded back in several layers. My wife noticed the way I stared at the empty bed. She told me that Mrs. Black had passed away; the nurses had come during the night and taken her away. Her daughter was not there when it happened.
Mrs. Carter was banging on the bed rail with a spoon as my wife waved goodbye and there were two people waiting in wheelchairs outside—the fourth and fifth transients in a ward for four people. We headed down the corridor, relief evident in my wife’s face. Her mood was buoyant: she was at last returning to her own home, her own bed. Her tests had turned out favourably and this perhaps compensated for not having a semi-private room in a hospital filled to overcrowding.
I don’t think my wife was as happy as I was, though—happy that I would not have to visit her again. But I couldn’t help wondering what conditions would be like in 20 years. In a system already stretched to the limit, how will it be when our turn comes?
POSTSCRIPT: this is now 2020/21. A Covid Pandemic is upon us, and Canada has suffered many casualties, the major portion (over 70% based on a recent Globe And Mail article) occurring in nursing homes. We are of course, older, my wife and I. Back in 1992 I wondered what conditions would be like 20 years later. Twenty-eight years after the article was written and published, nothing much seems to have changed in our health care system.