During the night an elderly man died and a frightened woman had a stroke

Hilary Fannin: A&E is an oil slick of ailing humanity the State seems unable to absorb

'Maybe A&E is crowded enough already, without a flock of guardian angels banging their heads off the fluorescent bulbs.' Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

'Maybe A&E is crowded enough already, without a flock of guardian angels banging their heads off the fluorescent bulbs.' Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

I ended up in A&E recently with kidney stones. They took me by surprise, catapulting themselves around those tender organs like fraught toddlers in a ball pit. 

I’m fine. A bouncy young urologist, who looked like he should be stealing traffic cones, offered surgical intervention involving an indeterminate wait where I was for a bed. 

I demurred. He graciously sent me home with some medication, instructions to drink a reservoir, and an outpatient appointment for sometime in 2020. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture.)

I hadn’t been in A&E for a while. I’ve given up chainsaw juggling, and my mother too (a bit of an aficionado when it comes to the emergency room) appears to have taken a break from the tightrope. Nothing much has changed though. A&E is still an oil slick of ailing humanity that the State seems unable or unwilling to absorb. 

During the night an elderly man died, and a frightened woman next to me, who had had a stroke, wept quietly and then told me about her life as a wardrobe mistress

I spent the day and early part of the night on a chair, attached to a drip, and was intermittently wheeled up and down for scans. The porter who wheeled me – a warm, brisk woman with blue-black hair – cheerfully told me that women were always putting their own health and wellbeing last. Later, seeing me still chair-bound, she brought me a blanket and pillow. Such acts of kindness are not forgotten.

Wax carving

I was lucky. I finally walked out of the place, saying goodbye to my immediate neighbours, my less fortunate chair fellows, from the elderly man who looked like a wax carving, in hospital for the third time since Christmas, playing a macabre game of musical chairs with pneumonia, to the anxious woman in the next chair along, her legs ballooning, her skin cracking, her chest hacking, endlessly sifting through the contents of her big, cumbersome bag.

“I never know what to bring or how long they’ll keep me,” she panted apologetically. 

Ten years ago, in the same A&E, for the same complaint, I had spent 48 hours on a trolley waiting for a bed. It was a weekend, and one or two of my bedfellows, presumably under arrest, were handcuffed to their rails, police and security watching over them and patrolling the narrow lanes between the gurneys. During the night an elderly man died, and a frightened woman next to me, who had had a stroke, wept quietly and then told me, in a series of broken snapshots, about her life as a wardrobe mistress. She asked to hold my hand. The next day I was transferred to the ward. I never did find out what became of her.

Maybe A&E is crowded enough already, without a flock of guardian angels banging their heads off the fluorescent bulbs

This time, though, I came home, wrapped myself around the water tap, watched television. 

There was a million-selling author on the screen, with a string of heavy pearls around her neck. She was talking, with practised humility, about angels. I was feeling slightly trippy, slightly spaced; it was probably the medication. In that state of benign transcendence, I really should have been a receptive audience for her prattle, her jabber, her celestial chit-chat.

She was telling her host that angels love music and that, despite our preconceptions about them (you know, all those grim plaster effigies spitting brimstone), they are really not all that serious. She said (and I paraphrase wildly here) that, on the contrary, angels don’t just enjoy music, but delight in many aspects of our human pursuit of happiness. 

Angels, eh? Who knew? Divils for a decent Pinot Noir, only mad for a rollmop herring and an elegant downward dog.

Red dust

Oh all right, she didn’t go that far. She did say, however, that God had once sat her on his lap and opened up his heart to her (literally, not metaphorically), removing some red dust from its beating interior, placing it in the palm of his hand, breathing over it, and birthing a soul. 

God empties bucketfuls of angels over the earth, the author said, or words to that effect; there are unemployed angels all around us just waiting to be asked for their protection.

I turned off the television. 

Maybe A&E is crowded enough already, without a flock of guardian angels banging their heads off the fluorescent bulbs. Maybe that’s why heaven’s emissaries seemed so spectacularly absent that day, among the old and the sick, the poor and the endlessly patient, the lost and lonely waxen men and women in faded hospital gowns, staring into emptiness.

There is humanity there, though, and kindness and support of an entirely temporal variety; a skilled practicality that continues, selflessly, among the medical staff, despite the dire, unchanging condition of our A&Es.

And surely that’s some miracle.

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