In January 1985 I was in London, England, working on a book with a colleague and leading workshops for teachers and recreation workers when I was beset by a cough that wouldn’t quit, hemorrhaging that happened for no reason I understood, hardly able to eat or drink. After a colleague asked how I was, I reluctantly admitted, “Not so well.” She called the Warden (person in charge of the post-graduate student housing where I was living for five weeks). The Warden called a doctor with a lovely Scottish accent who examined me, told me one of my lungs had collapsed, that I had an extremely low pulse, and was very sick. Stunned by her findings I tried to tell her I’d be fine in a few days, but she ignored my protestations. “It’s off to the hospital with you my girl. Right now!”
Even after being examined by several doctors, who did all kinds of tests, none of them were able to diagnose my illness. Their best guess was Legionnaire’s disease. I had three days of treatment in a four-bed ICU type room and was then, in spite of my protests that I needed to be in the smaller room, wheeled to a huge ward filled with 28 women, all of us critically ill. Even after I no longer needed oxygen or blood transfusions, and despite being treated with seven different kinds of antibiotics, I was still hooked up to an IV filled with various medications, prescribed by doctors who were trying their best to keep me alive.
Two doctors examined me, discussing my problematic case as if I were not in the room. I couldn’t bear it and blurted out, “You act as if I have leukemia.” As soon as I saw their reactions, their surprised nodding, I realized this was exactly what they were thinking. Me? Leukemia? Cancer? I wished I’d kept my big mouth shut.
In order to diagnose the kind of leukemia I had, the doctors ordered a bone marrow biopsy, which was more painful and less diagnostically useful than predicted. When the second one was ordered I asked if the doctor could give me an anesthetic. As I felt the jab of the needle I noticed the time—a few minutes past 11.
When I next looked at the clock, it was a few minutes past five. A group of women, all hooked up to IV’s were clustered around my bed. “Oh Luv, you’re awake. We’ve been so anxious. You’ve been crying all day. Telling us how hard your life has been.”
I looked at them, unable to comprehend what they were saying. What were they doing huddled around my bed? Where had I been the past six hours? A sister (nurse) noticing I was awake, shooed the women away, thrust a thermometer in my mouth, held my wrist, felt for a pulse, then took out the thermometer, noted something in the chart at the end of my bed, and left without a word.
When the women were sure the sister was gone, they returned to my bed, full of concern. “We’ve been really worried about you.” “We tried to comfort you.” “You’ve been crying ever since the doctors left,” said Maud, a gaunt woman whose bed was next to mine. Others chimed in, with more expressions of caring.
I looked at the women feeling a mixture of embarrassment, disbelief, interest—mixed with wonder that they were so concerned about me, sick as they were.
One of the women said, “We should let you rest,” and started to wheel her IV away. “Wait, please, I begged.” She stopped. “Could you tell me what I said?”
It seemed that they were upset about my crying but didn’t know what to do except listen. Although none of them stayed with me the whole time., they told me what they remembered. “You said you had a really hard life.” “You talked about your mother beating you.” You said she broke bones and dislocated your jaw and shoulder and they didn’t take you to a doctor.” “Nobody loved you.” Nobody helped you.” “You said you wanted to die.” “Why didn’t they let you die?” “Some of it we couldn’t understand.” “And when sister came round, she would tell us to get back into our beds.”
I couldn’t believe I’d been crying and talking about my life for six hours, or that women as sick or sicker than I was, would stand by my bed trying to comfort me. “Thank you so much,” I said, not knowing what else to say, overwhelmed by their compassion.
“Don’t worry, Luv,” said Maud. “We do what we can. It’s an awful time in an awful place.”
“I really appreciate your caring.”
“We know,” said a white-faced, wrinkled woman. “You help us too.”
“When we have to sit around the table and eat, and none of us likes the food or feels hungry, the jokes you make about ‘our fine dining,’—you make us laugh.” That didn’t seem like much to me, but another woman added, “And the way you talk to the sisters. like you aren’t afraid, that’s really good.”
They were referring to an incident where I responded to their complaints in a way that seemed reasonable to me. “All I did was turn off the overhead lights when everyone said they hurt their eyes. As you pointed out, we all have lamps by our beds.”
“Well, none of us dared to do it. And when sister asked who turned off the lights, bold as brass you were, telling her you did it. You took her by surprise. They’re not used to anyone challenging them. Bold as brass you were.” We started to laugh, remembering the shocked look on sister’s face.
“See, I told you, you make us laugh,” grinned one of the women. Then a sister entered the room and they hobbled back to their beds, deftly steering their IV poles. Maud winked. I winked back. We might be sick, and dying, but we hadn’t lost our sense of caring or our ability to laugh.
Think about a time when you were in a difficult situation and someone’s caring helped you. What was that like for you?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.