When I was younger my grandparents always used to spend Halloween with us. Despite their living in America, in the same small town in New Jersey where my mother grew up, where Halloweens are far more exciting affairs (during a ten-minute drive through the town this year, we saw two startlingly lifelike fake corpses hanging by the neck from front-garden trees and one fake gravestone that read “Michael Myers 1952-?”), they much prefer it in our small corner of West London- all plastic cobwebs and jewel-bright pumpkins on doorsteps. Grandma would ask us what we wanted to be months beforehand, and would bring our costumes with her across the Atlantic: seeing her draw them out of her suitcase and examining them delightedly in every detail was easily as exciting as unwrapping presents at Christmas. Grandpa would bring over special pumpkin-carving kits and we would place our hands over his as he carved it. When it was done, he would congratulate us on our good work and artistic vision.
One weekend in October 2011, just after they had arrived, Grandpa got very ill.
This is the diary entry I wrote up about it, nearly three years later, titled ‘Lessons from Hammersmith Hospital’.
- When an obese, type-2-diabetic American stops eating, you need to get him medical attention.
- When said American starts behaving in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of your other grandmother, who is ninety and has dementia- asking where his wife is when she’s sitting right next to him, not being able to navigate a five-yard walk to the bathroom and so forth- it is time to start panicking.
- It is never time to start panicking.
- No matter how annoying his commenting on everything that passes the car window might occasionally be, when he goes silent for an entire hour, you will forget all about how much it can irritate you.
- The walk from the Charing Cross A&E waiting room to the nearest Starbucks is remarkably short, which suggests a certain amount of cynical profiteering on Starbucks’ part.
- If the strength of Dad’s grip on our hands is anything to go by, you are apparently more likely to be hit by a car when a close relative is in hospital.
- The standard test for a stroke is to ask the patient who the current Prime Minister is. And the nurses will plough on with that test even when they know full well the patient is American.
- Apparently the two most important facts about a patient is their first name and date of birth. And no, it is not as good a sign as you think it is when these facts are written above the bed on a wipe-clean board.
- The eighth-floor ward of Charing Cross Hospital offers a beautiful view of the sunset over west London.
- You never want to be an ‘interesting patient’. Nor do you want anyone you love to be an ‘interesting patient’. Interest entails curiosity and curiosity entails the unknown, and neither of these are good things when said curious unknown has already hospitalised you. You want your illness to be so mind-numbingly routine that the doctors heal it one-handed whilst glaring at you for adding to the tedium.
- You would think it would be funny when your grandfather starts quizzing the nurses on the lunch menu lest they try to poison him. And you would be right. Do not think too hard about what that says about you.
- The drive to Hammersmith Hospital is paved with kebab shops and Absolute Radio tracks.
- Catheters are disgusting.
- Twelve-year-old girls are just as useless to a seriously ill patient or his doctors as you might expect. Nine-year-old girls even more so.
- Hammersmith Hospital does not look like a hospital. It looks like a renovated office building. This is not very comforting.
- The Humphreys Ward is not, it turns out, named after John Humphrys of the Today programme.
- Metal elevators are terrifying. On the plus side: no musak.
- Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two is not best enjoyed in a sterilised hospital ward on a dark winter’s evening. As it turns out, Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two is best enjoyed with the TV off.
- You have no expertise in medicine, but it does not take medical expertise to calculate the chances of a seventy-eight-year-old man with a disease which no one can quite identify. Do not ask your parents to confirm this: they will lie to you, and you cannot blame them.
- ‘Interesting patients’ are healed using far too much sheer luck for you to be entirely comfortable with.
- ‘Interesting patients’ can be healed.