322 – The Wheelchair

After suffering a catastrophic allergic reaction to prescribed medication I found myself unable to walk, so I spent a couple of months bumming around the hospital in a wheelchair.

As unlucky as I considered myself at the time, I was tremendously lucky. I could have died, but I didn’t. I could have been permanently crippled, but I wasn’t. Though it seemed to drag on my stint in a wheelchair was brief, temporary. One day I simply stood from it and never went back.

At first the problem was pain; where the reaction had torn a hole in the interior of my stomach I’d bled internally, and the wound took some time to heal. Standing was unbearably painful, and for a time I had to be helped in and out of bed; Christ only knows how managed to get on and off the toilet.

The later half of what I thought of as my incarceration was stranger. Alongside the mysterious blood findings that saw me removed to an oncology ward, I started stuttering dizzy spells and black-outs that manifested when I tried to stand. I went to a private clinic for brain scans far scarier than the physical scans I’d had in the hospital, where, my head secured in a cage, I was subjected to loud rumblings that sounded like a thousand angry poltergeists rattling their wrath all around me. The scanners were tubular, tight; I was restrained and constrained, and some hitherto unrecognised claustrophobia now manifested itself, raging against my ragged nerves, daring me to press the panic button I’d been handed before being secured on the scanner’s bed.

Back in the hospital I was fed a nauseating aniseed cocktail that coated my innards thickly enough to be scanned by other scanners, and injected with a radioactive isotope to see if there was some other leak still inside me that was affected my central nervous system.

All to no avail. It’s quite possible whatever caused these fainting fits was psychosomatic. I was under an immense amount of pressure at the time to heal and get on with my schooling. So long out of my daily routine I’d become institutionalised to the hospital’s schedule. I stopped eating–the catering staff secretly melted ice cream into the Build Up milkshakes I was forced to drink under threat that if I didn’t they’d stick tubes up my nostrils and feed it directly down my throat–and a new savage kind of anger appeared. Trapped, frustrated, alone I lashed out, trying to escape through a hospital window, smashing it with my hand and cutting myself badly. As well as losing consciousness on a regular basis I was also losing my mind.

The cuts healed crookedly. I had an x-ray that evening to see if there were any splinters of glass stuck in my palm or fingers (there weren’t) and though I didn’t need stitches I had Steri-strips tape my skin back together. Today I’m scarred: on my fingers, on my wrist, close enough to the veins and arteries there the nurses thought I might have severed them.

Other scars run deeper. I can’t say I wasn’t already troubled by this point, but staying in hospital under such circumstances for so long can’t have helped–and let’s not forget those pale, drawn faces, those bald heads with their own blue traceries palpitating weakly as they shuffled past, drips in tow.

The wheelchair offered a freedom those caged in the rooms either side of mine could only dream of. Always wheeling myself, I took to exploring the hospital, sometimes venturing out to other wards–which reminded me, dreamlike, of adult pyjama parties–others visiting the lobby with its snack shop and newsagent, or the further extremes of the hospital: offices, the morgue.

Unsurprisingly the morgue is a solemn place. Cool, on the bottom-most floor of the hospital, empty stretchers lined the corridors, waiting for still cargo. There were few porters here, few staff at all in this always-midnight place, and the doors were thick as if deliberately difficult to open, lest those interred behind them decide to take a late night walk.

A new maternity was being built on the far side of the hospital. I visited it while outside snow was falling, something I hadn’t seen nor known about, having been cooped up inside the same two wards for so long. Though much of the work had been completed there were still a few workmen with sanders and paint-brushed putting the finishing touches to it. A long walkway connected the block to the rest of the hospital; where the joins hadn’t been filled jets of cold air blasted through from outside, quite at odds with the balmy heating of the rest of the maternity wing.

Rank and file of empty cots and ICU cubicles sat the opposite side of wide viewing areas, and it was all too easy to imagine them filled with tiny, wailing humans. A few babies were already in attendance, not in the cots but visiting the postnatal outpatient clinic, which had opened its doors early. Every one was swaddled warmly, and was wearing a hat like a stripy sock, to guard against the cold. The joy evident in each mother’s face was tempered by signs pointing to the darkest room in the wing: the office for post natal depression.

I went to the maternity wing a lot. It was a long, easy roll with few bumps along the way, along which I could practise a few of the stunts I’d been cultivating, pulling about turns, popping wheelies, doing much the same any kid with a wheelchair would do if he could, I imagine. Sometimes I’d go with my dad or a classmate beside me, filling me in on what was going on in the outside world or being surprised when I was shocked to see snow I hadn’t known about pressing against the emergency exits. Just as often I’d go alone, enjoying the stillness of the place, glad to be in a part of the hospital that–while not yet open–embraced life as opposed to death, as did the ward I’d then return to.

By the neglected rear door to the hospital–quite the afterthought compared to the Starship Enterprise hotel plushness of the front lobby–were a few vending machines from which I drank hot chocolate and ate Steak and Onion McCoy crisps and Biscuit Boost bars once my appetite had returned. Along with the Chicken & Mushroom Pot Noodles I had in my bedside cabinet in the cancer ward, they were as balanced a diet as I’d eat in this land of bland, lifeless cuisine.

Once, travelling between floors, pressing the button (and receiving an electric shock, as I always did–my reward for scooting about in a wheelchair while wearing a nylon dressing gown) and waiting for the elevator to arrive, I saw a woman who looked just like my grandmother being pushed in her bed by a porter. They took the elevator ahead of us, departing for floors unknown.

My dad was with me at the time. “My God,” he said. “I thought that was your Gran for a minute.”

And though it wasn’t–couldn’t have been–an omen of things to come, for a second we both saw a doppelganger, a ghost passing us by.

She never made it to the hospital, my gran. Of all the ignominies she died on the toilet, or as near as damn it. Her own son had to bust the door down in order to get to her, her corpse slumped against it, blocking his entry, and I have to wonder: how does a man return from such a thing? How do you survive something like that?

And then, one day I simply stood from it and never went back.

I know a lad who’s in a wheelchair–or at least I know him online, which is about as well as I know anyone. He’d never had the luxury of casting it off and probably never will. Just this week he tweeted it had conked out in the toilet of a café leaving him stranded, albeit briefly. He’s a good lad as far as I know–he certainly seems to be one of the better people on the planet. It’d be nice if he could walk again. I dare say he’d do much more with his life after leaving the wheelchair than I did with mine.

It’s done with now: the wheelchair, the wards, the labyrinth of the dying in its entirety. I only returned to hospital once during one of my late night jaunts, when I walked all the way out there to look into the lobby, which was mostly deserted at that time of the night. Nobody was manning the desk and only a couple of people sat by the staircase that swept up to the chapel and all the sick people beyond it. There were fish in the tank as there always were, the ever-present streamers of pink shit (such a powerful image I’ll never be able to disentangle it from the sense of a hospital) like scarves or flags or medical tubes waving out behind them. There were a couple ambulances in the bays by the door and one of them still had its lights–but no siren–on.

Standing there, I didn’t know what to do or why I’d come so far–or if I’d gone there at all. Perhaps it was only a dream that came to me as I slept thinking of places I should go, loose ends that should be tied up. As haunting as my midnight trips through unlit woodland, those too seem unlikely yet I know them to be real. Was this hospital lobby emptied of all traffic, all malady–was this place somewhere I went to or somewhere I imagined?

It’s no use thinking about it now, I suppose. Like so many other places mentioned in this blog, it’s only somewhere else I’ll never see again.

Like a dream that flees on waking, it recedes. The wheels that once took me so many places, now empty, spins. and slows, and stops.

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