At the age of 22 I was motoring round Perth’s Crawley foreshore in my souped-up but expensively clapped-out Austin A40. I saw a caravan parked on the verge near the newly-opened Narrows Bridge, offering free X-rays for tuberculosis screening. I stopped and had a chest X-ray. A fortnight later I got a letter inviting me to have a repeat. A day or two after that I was invited to see a doctor at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Shenton Park for an interview. He pointed at my X-ray, indicated a ‘spot’ and said I would be a patient until my spot was under control.
“How long would that take?” I asked.
“THREE MONTHS!” I was dumbfounded.
“We want you settled in here next Saturday. Here’s a sheet about what to bring.”
(To shimmy my narrative forward, I was actually in hospital for SIX months. I’m sure the doctor bloody-well-knew).
I had never been seriously ill. The prospect of hospital overwhelmed every thought in my brain. My work? My uni studies? And top of the list, my girlfriend Shirley (name changed), the most desirable young lady I had ever known, not that I had known a great many.
“Let’s get married?” I had asked her a month previously (people married young in those days – it was like a mass race to the altar). “Yes,” she said as we necked ardently in my A40 in a lovers’ lane in Crawley, in company with 12 other cars-full of couples, plus pedestrian voyeurs who shone torches through the car windows, pretending to be police.
The next day she had changed her mind. Sorry, but no marriage. Did she love me? Yes of course. But when she had announced our engagement to her parents, they had not been over-keen.
As for the TB, my next issue was to inform my employers that they would have to get by without me. My boss took the news with sang-froid (from the French: cold blood). “Sorry to hear it, let’s know when you get out,” he said distractedly.
Sick pay? “One month on full pay, one month on half pay, one month on quarter pay and after that, not our concern.”
Well, I thought, at least I will get a sentimental send-off from my workmates. I had been to many of these, usually when a senior chap was quitting the company for greener pastures. In my mind’s eye I saw a little stopwork called, and an admiring but concerned circle of colleagues would surround me. Speeches would be made, praising my talents and character, with hopes for my quick recovery. I would be handed a briefcase or boxed fountain pen, financed from a whipround among staff.
It was my last day at work before Ward 2B. I needed to depart early to clean up my affairs, but it would look silly for workmates to organize the send-off when I was no longer there. I dropped hints to the cadet counselor that I would be leaving a couple of hours prematurely.
He didn’t seem to understand. I skirted the subject in various ways, until he indicated that he had something urgent to attend to. I slunk off…
Mum transferred me to my new surrogate mother, the hospital. I was in a two-bed room, my companion being a chap, Bill, who was devastated by his loss of occupation. He couldn’t meet his family responsibilities. We were friendly but I couldn’t identify with him.
The doctor briefed me: The more I rested and the most completely I rested, the quicker the TB spot would go away. Every exertion must be shunned.
Meanwhile, I would get three separate drugs daily – 30 PAS and Inah tablets, and a strep jab in the bum. (I soon perfected a trick of swallowing the 30 pills in a single mouthful).
The doctor mentioned there was a lad, Stephen Orgles, in my ward, a few years younger. The doctor hoped I would strike up a big-brotherly friendship with Stephen, passing on to him my more mature insights.
Bill drew the curtain around himself. I curled on the bed, mooning over Shirley.
Stephen trotted in, eager to make acquaintance. He was about 17, strongly built, and evinced a quizzical expression, caused by scrunching up his eyes (which he always referred to as ‘beadies’) to take in the details of me and my room. He was on for mischief and adventure. I explained that, sadly, my treatment required absolute rest. Disturbances of any kind would retard my all-important cure.
Stephen cocked his head and looked at me appraisingly, as a slaughterman might look at a bullock. Snickering, he pulled back the bedclothes while I gazed at him, pajama-clad, in mute distress.
My bed was next to the window, which had slat blinds pulled up with cords dangling. Stephen expertly tied my ankles together with one cord and my wrists with another. I was half amused, half indignant but conscientiously passive.
Then he tightened the cords to lift my legs and arms half way up the window pane, while my body was still on the bed and my head raised off the pillow. I think Stephen had farming experience and was used to trussing sheep. He stepped back, surveyed his handiwork, and said, “Well, I’m off! Tell me what Sister McGuiness says when she finds you.”
Bill poked his head out of his curtains. He was familiar with Stephen’s ways, and observing me trussed to the window, his depression lifted and he too waited expectantly for Sister’s inspection. “Tell her you’re tied up at the moment,” he suggested.
Stephen’s plan misfired to the extent that several junior nurses happened by, untrussed me and lowered me gently down. (The scene should have been painted by Raphael, “Descent from the Double-Cross”). I was so relieved from the overall stress of the day that I fell asleep. I don’t know how the nurses described their spectacular find in the blanks of a ward-report template. But they had a good story for nurses’ quarters that night…
The episode broke any mis-trussed with the younger nurses, some of whom found a 22-year-old student more personable than their regular clients, incontinent old alcoholics. But I was unavailable romantically. Memories of necking with Shirley would bite me like a bull-ant.
In the evening I would hear her high heels tapping down the corridor, click-clack click-clack, the rhythm of love. But once at my bedside, although verbally she was mine, she avoided tactile moments. I checked: “You do still love me?”
“Oh yes, I do.” She radiated sincerity.
A bit of a mystery. As the weeks turned into a month , I asked yet again, “Do you love me?” This time she replied, “Please don’t ask me that!”
I twigged that she was no longer all that into me, as modern people would say. It was only pity and good-heartedness that kept her visiting me.
I told her morosely not to come any more. As she now loved a parent-approved suitor, whom she later married, she was doubtless relieved to get me out of her hair.
Keep in mind that hospitals are crawling with boyfriend-less nurses. Various of them wasted no time in filling the vacancy left by Shirley.
The harassment of the nursing body (no pun intended) by Stephen and I was reciprocated. I suffered one practical joke that went way too far – but who am I to complain?
One morning I noticed two sores on each side of my groin. The doctors suspected a reaction to the drugs. The sores evolved to circular rings, like coral atolls. A sister suggested the correct diagnosis – ringworm.
The treatment involved painting the sores with ointment and a tea-bag-like soaking of my nether regions each evening in a red-purple mercurochrome bath. This event was delegated to nurses, not being high-tech medicine. Nurses and I were thus inducted into the Fellowship of the Rings.
After a few days, I developed startling side effects. My scrotum changed color from healthy pink to an angry red and began peeling as if from severe sunburn. The doctor discontinued the red baths and my scrotum normalized, thankfully before I became eligible to join a castrati chorus.
The adverse reaction to standard treatment mystified the medicos. Maybe it was written up in the literature. But one of my friendly nurses tipped me off that a rival nurse had added a supplement to the bath intended to cause me itchy annoyance. It seemed like she had added a damn sight too much of it…
My guardian devil, Steve, had an inspiration. Someone had left a trolley idle in the corridor. “I’ll dress up as a doc and wheel you round on the trolley,” he suggested. A tour d’horizon sounded good.
But we over-did it. After passing through several wards, I decided to become a dead patient rather than just a bogus one. Steve pulled the sheet over my head, with my big nose forming an apex. He set off for the mortuary. (There were such departures even from our own TB ward, of older guys, mostly dead-beats, who contracted TB in the pre-antibiotic era).
Under the sheet I tuned in to the changing sounds as we clattered mortuary-wards. Steve later explained that as we entered a corridor, a doctor popped out, with his bevy of students and sisters. I heard him hiss: “Back to the ward, quick!”
Steve was wearing a surgical mask and gown as part of his medico get-up, so he was unrecognizable. Even as I sat up with the sheet still over my head, I heard Stephen’s footsteps thudding away from me towards Ward 2B. I flung off the sheet and leapt backwards after him, the trolley ricocheting forwards in accordance with the third of Newton’s laws.
We never heard of any repercussions. It must have been a surreal moment for the medical team…
Part II will be published tomorrow at Quadrant Online