Hilary Fannin: A fall, they say, can change everything

A&E was awash with the fallen, the wounded, the broken, the reparable and the irreparable

Photograph: Frank Miller

Photograph: Frank Miller

 

My mother fell. She got out of bed at 4am, and fell. Her personal emergency device, which should have been around her neck, wasn’t. The following morning, she finally raised the alarm. The ambulance took her to A&E.

“She’s comfortable,” the nurse said over the phone.

Comfortable. I repeated the word to myself as I drove to the hospital. Comfortable.

“A fall; a fall can change everything.”

“Yes,” I responded to the aproned nurse. “Yes, of course.”

A&E was awash with the fallen, the wounded, the broken, the reparable and the irreparable. Old men – three, maybe four of them, corpse-still, blue-veined, paper-skinned, one with his overcoat on over a hospital gown – lay beached, dried out, washed up like driftwood on trolleys and narrow beds.

On the same metal-bed shore, young men, some swollen and bruised, some lacerated and sullen, some impatient and itching to get back to the fray, the squall, the moment of defeat, tossed and turned on their temporary beds, glaring at girlfriends in tight white leggings who sat in plastic chairs, flicking through glossy magazines and biting bright blue fingernails.

These women kept time with their men in the long wait for the next result, the next stage of the process, the transfer from casualty’s caravan park to a des-res six-bedded ward or maybe a bijou operating theatre.

It was a weekend morning when my mother sailed into casualty on her gurney, with her mast made of shattered bone, her sails barely fluttering to the strained beats of a cloudy heart.

 

Endless decisions

I counted more men than women in A&E that night, and more young men than old. But maybe that’s no surprise. Nurses moved fast on rubber-soled shoes; doctors and consultants were caught in the nets of endless decisions, anchored for long minutes to ringing telephones in the nurses’ station behind the Perspex glass.

Someone called out from a bed obscured by a drawn curtain, sharp and sudden, a pitch of surprise. A nurse slipped into the gap; another followed. Silence.

After morphine had been administered to my mother, an amusing, vaguely surreal conversation ensued between her and the pristine, handsome, gently humorous orthopaedic surgeon who had come to assess her.

“Who did your shoulder, your hip, your knees?” he inquired, referring to previous surgeries that had rendered her near-bionic.

“Good God, what was his name? It sounded like a bird. He had a name like a bird. Terribly, terribly tall. Lovely man. He looked about 12.”

The surgeon smilingly identified his colleague, and told my mother that the surgeon she thought was “about 12” was actually celebrating a significant wedding anniversary.

“And is his wife terribly tall, too?” my mother inquired, her medication meandering with her thoughts through the byways of her bloodstream, stopping every now and then to enjoy the view.

I left to make a telephone call. Returning, I passed a woman – elderly, strong – sitting upright on her hospital bed. Hunched forward a little, she looked proud. She also looked like she was finally tasting defeat.

Her two adult daughters stood by the bed, arms folded under solid chests. They tossed their tended, heat-straightened manes like affronted ponies.

“How could you?” they hissed. “How could you speak about us like that, in front of your so-called friend?”

The woman in the bed bent her head lower. Tears came fast and sudden. She brought a tissue to her mouth. The daughters, unprepared for the precision of their blow, stopped speaking.

I watched until a nurse came down and comforted the woman. I watched the daughters’ broad backs retreat through the swinging door.

Who knows what any of us are dealing with? Who knows when, or where, or how, our breaking points are reached? Who knows when anger and fear will fly to the surface, shooting to our mouths in supersonic lifts from the pits of our stomachs, while sympathy and grace struggle up the back stairs, trying to get there before it’s too late.

Standing in A&E, watching a critical world unfurl (observation itself being just another way to retreat), one is struck over and and over and over again by our frailty and humanity.

“Thank you,” I said to the nurses and porter when they finally wheeled my mother out of there and up to a bed in high-dependency. “Thank you so much.”

“That’s all right,” said the porter. “It’s just my job.”

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