A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVOR DISABILITYBICH
By WILLIAM GRUAR
and a man must break his back to earn a day of leisure -The Beatles
Tug tug tug. A big snapper on my line. We were off the Poor Knights on the North Reef. Deep water. Lots of fish down there. Trouble was getting them up. Sharks of varying sizes cutting them off at the lateral fin, just where the bones started, just where we would start the fillet cut. No danger of their finding a hook there, cunning bastards. Not that we'd want one coming up to the boat! The arcs left below the truncated heads suggested there were some very large mouths down there with very sharp teeth and large appetites. Blam. One huge tug, then nothing.
I jerked into consciousness. My right leg was hanging out of bed. The digital clock blinked 12:01. I groped for the buzzer cord. One ring or three? My body was almost out of bed. If I fell I wouldn't be able to push it at all, but more to the point, they'd kick my arse for all the form-filling that accompanied such an accident. Not that I'd know anyone was kicking my arse....... One good blast, enough to wake up half the ward; the other half are probably still trying to get to sleep.
"What do you.....Oh my God!" Maureen started to laugh. "Where are you off to?"
"Hurry up and put me back. Another spasm'll have me on the floor. Or in your arms. That'll cause a lot of paperwork if they find us!"
"We'll have to start tying you in if you're going to keep this up."
"I didn't know you were into bondage. That'd be fun. Got any leather?"
"We'll do it when you go back to sleep, with masking tape. Full cover. Where do you want your feet?"
"I'll sleep on my side, facing the window. Could you stick a pillow under my legs, please, and one more over my face."
"You're not that ugly, William. Now go back to sleep. Anything else?"
Sleep. Impossible. Winking light from the clock. Security light glaring through the curtain. Water surging in the sluice room. Thoughts pounding around my head. Spasm twitching my legs. Pins and needles in the feet. Pins and needles! I'm not supposed to have pins and needles down there, not supposed to feel a bloody thing below the level of the break, let alone pain. Doctor says it could be the beginning of sensation, which I suppose it is. When it started I was quite pleased to feel anything at all down there. Then one of the old crips in the gym told me that pins and needles can last for years and mean nothing more than a damn nuisance. Big deal. If this is the beginning of sensation I'll take the bag, thanks.
Sleep. I'd already been asleep, in the arms of the old REM. Now I was wide awake, but the strange reality of the dream still pervaded. Dreams. You are the objects and personae of any dream. Therefore I am a boat, bobbing about on the surface but anchored to a heavy weight below. I am half of a fish, still alive, but lacking any means of propulsion, being drawn helplessly to the surface in dire pain. I am a shark, efficiently at work below, the cunning hidden predatory opportunist. I am the sea, the air, the wheeling gulls, the barren cliffs rising up to the south. I am the distant mainland, low on the horizon with a threat of wind and rain to batter against on return. I am the thwarted fisherman with a catch of second rate cuts. Did I say spineless and gutless. Trapped?
Let's not take this too far.
Sleep. Well I was never a great sleeper, rolled around too much, always hotter and grumpier than my partners, put a lot of pressure on the relationships, I can tell you. Now the pressure will be on my arse as the blood stops flowing and the bones push through the thin skin. Our little slide evening showed that. No shots of the family at the Sheraton Denarau, just a whole lot of bloody holes in legs, bums, heels and testicles. Scared me straight back to bed for an inspection with the little mirror supplied under the equipment fund. What were those red dimples? In three hours would they erupt into pus filled craters?
Let's not take this too far.
Sleep. Devices. Count sheep. Name the old cars I've owned, many now classic, what would they be worth now? Alphabetical listing of my hospital visitors. Remember old girl-friends. How come after thirty years a one-night stand has more detail than fourteen years with the same woman. Fourteen years. Three kids, then separation. Four years later, begin again with a new woman. Seven years and two more kids, and she's gone too. The destructive power of the seven-year itch! Years of monogamy, monophony, monotony, monopoly, misogyny, misanthropy, mystery, misery.
Let's not take this too far.
Where's the buzzer? On the other side of course. Should I get a little something to kick-start sleep? Then at dawn to be half woken up half asleep. Not allowed to sleep-in mornings, so spend all day in a drug coma. Try again.
Roll over onto the other side? Pull up with one hand clawing the sheet, the other pushing. Shooting pains in the back getting worse. Sit up and lean forward. Uncross legs, bloody heavy useless things. Pillow out from under the shin, onto the other side, lift leg across, push up with fists and shift bum across and towards end of bed, roll over and find plastic wrapped hospital pillow. Hygienic. Inert. Filled with some synthetic matter unmorselling in my ear. Hundreds and thousands rustling through an hour glass for five minutes.
One of these nights I will fall out of this hard short little bed which must date back to the days when they had the money and care to jam the wards full of patients. Now the unit is one third empty, with a waiting list as long as your arm. Staff working short hours and bitter because they want to work more but can't be paid. Place running at its stretch. Staff running from patient to patient. Patients running staff ragged with buzzer calls. Patience. It's an imperfect world. Be glad to be here. Ho hum........
I am walking, unable to trust my legs, but I am walking. This will show that doctor who said I'd never walk again. Down a grassy slope and into a hedge. I will get up and start again, but instead find myself awake, disorientated. Dreams about walking are happy dreams and the waking transition is abrupt and unsettling, sometimes casting a dislocating pall over the whole following day.
Am I a grassy slope, a hedge? Am I gravity itself? Can't go much further than gravity.
A nurse is checking the lock on the door leading outside. "You still awake! Just making sure no dirty women come in and molest you."
"I'd be more likely molested from this side, wouldn't I?"
"Ever hopeful, eh. Do you want some prothiaden to get you to sleep?"
"I'm OK, thanks."
"Heard you nearly fell out before. You sure I can't get you anything, cup of Milo perhaps?"
"I'll just wet the bed. I'll be OK, thanks"
Wet the bed. Crap my pants. Fall out of bed. Accidents to go into the book. Hospitals are statistically the most dangerous places in New Zealand because every thing gets recorded.
Average duration of paraplegic treatment in hospital - five months.
Cost per day- $400
Chances of falling from bed- 100%
Chances of falling from wheelchair- 100%
Chances of picking up Urinary Tract Infection- 100%
Chances of falling in love with nurse- 50%
Chances of nurse reciprocating- Nil
Chances of walking again- Nil.
Chances of any one being at home on discharge ......
Chances of getting back to sleep.......
Let's not take this too far......
Itch. Scratch my back. Thought that this would be the end of back pain but it still endures. Itching. Seven year itch. Seven year's bad luck? Beware the seventh wave. Why is seven a statistic of disharmony? Seven years to inseminate, produce the necessary 1.97 statistical children and get them off to school so the wife can get back to work? Seems a bit efficient for mother nature, the original profligate. Why should she want to go back to work at all? Why not show some gratitude to the male for accepting the donkey work. Not that he's much of a stud any more, with the western sperm-count decimated to just a million or so per ejaculation in the last few decades. Why does back-pain endure? In a few aeons all that will remain of this civilisation will be some tinea spores and fossilised laminated vertebrae?
What will my next dream bring? Where will I roam in the unrestricted silence of the subconscious? Why does my imperfect body continue to operate in the bottomless depths and eerie reaches of the strange yet familiar realms of dream-time? Why do I prefer my dreams to the harsh reality of waking up? Why does my subconscious create such a happy, mobile, unrestricted existence within the dream's boundless freedom?
Why does my subconscious deny what the doctors, the insurance company, the ACC and my conscious self accept as a sad unalterable fact? If the ACC is prepared to buy me a wheel-chair, a lift, a car, and a wind-up clothes line on the basis of a few reports, then there must be something seriously wrong. But still there are people of faith who think I can be cured, not through the intervention of medical science, but through the laying on of hands, positive thinking, numbers, diet and colours.
"I can fix him, but only if he wants to be fixed," said one healer who came along in answer to a request for help with paraplegia that my daughter Aimee placed in the TRADE AND EXCHANGE. Aimee agrees that I should not give into this disability, but should fight it with positive thought. I wouldn't reject any method of course, but there doesn't seem much hope apart from those, both apocryphal and real, who claim recovery from serious spinal injury.
"It's all in the nature of the break, not so much in what happens afterwards," the experts tell me. Try telling that to the new boy-friend of an old girl-friend who fell 60 feet into a wheelbarrow and yet managed to walk again after 2 years.
"I only fell ten feet."
"So you'll be O.K. It'll just take time. One day you'll feel something like a fly landing on your foot, and then your legs will start to work again. Think positive."
I put enough positive thought into accepting this situation. Now I should feel guilty for not thinking my way back onto my feet? That perhaps it's my fault no sensation has returned?
Perhaps it is all my fault. Didn't one of the Occupational Therapists tell me that most of her patients have had some pre-accident "history"? Did I have to ask her what she meant?
Sure I caused the accident, but there were extenuating circumstances. How can one truly cause "an unforeseen or unexpected event" (Chambers)? All I did was walk backwards onto some sunrotten plastic roofing (indistinguishable from the iron roof itself) as I worked with my head in powerlines to erect a stupid sign over some wannabe yuppie restaurant. Stood back to check my work like any good artisan seeking perspective. Should I have glued the heavy steel onto the hollow block wall as instructed? Who would the Labour Department blame when it fell off and brained some kid waiting at the bus stop beneath?
Ironic to think that my accident was a function of my taking care. Is blame the issue? Why, after a week of me lying in intensive-care semi-comatose, was some carpenter instructed to replace the structure, without the strengthening support to ensure this could not happen again? Let's not take this too far.
5:00 am: Security light peeps through the curtain. The nesting sparrows of the gutters have begun their working class cacophony. A truck backfires down the motorway. Cascades irrigate the sluice room. I lie diagonally across the bed, a pillow between my legs. I am awake. Again. Now my legs are frozen and my hips at a crazy angle to my torso. Cautiously, I rearrange myself. My upper body feels as if it has been rammed into a foreign container, unsuccessfully. What is the nature of this weight below? Unnecessary, unattractive, unnatural, unpleasant. Yet familiar.
The phone goes in the nurses station. Voices. Who is ringing in sick this time? Someone is annoyed; the phone will be busy finding a replacement. Imagine answering the phone on this cold morning.
"Sorry to wake you up. Can you come in and do the morning? Yes, I realise that you did the afternoon yesterday, but Millie's just rung in sick....."
Or will we get another bureau nurse? Why do we get these commercial replacements from outside the system when the regular staff tell me that they need the extra work themselves? God help us, some of these "ring-ins" haven't a clue. What about that one who kept telling us she was a nurse but had to ask us how to make a cup of Milo? Or the one, face as fixed as the starched creases on her tunic, who couldn't fill out her timesheet? (Or rather tried to claim eleven hours for the standard eight hour shift). Give me the regular staff anyday, stripes or not.
5:30 am: Can't get up yet, although they tried to get all the paras up early two weeks ago. That was to ease the pre-breakfast congestion in the cowshed and get us rolling to a good institutional start. (We proved intractably late risers.) Lie on the hard bed and think about the new day, week, year, life. "Don't think about what you can't do, concentrate on what you can do." OK. Where to start? Can I reach those painkillers? Roll over? Is it worth the effort? If I close my eyes I may get back to sleep for half an hour. God knows I don't feel like I've had very much yet. This is the time when a heavy dream can take your direction for the rest of the day..........
I am swimming under the keel of a ship. I have to go deeper to come out under its bulge. I am spying on a spy ship. I place a magnetic video camera on the hull. The bulging keel is actually one of two large bombs concealed under the water. The ship is moving forward, sailors are looking down at me, but my little lens is safe; my mission accomplished. I swim away to my support vessel cruising along beside the large ship, which I now see is from Russia. My friends from the C.I.A pull me aboard, and I am safe. We are in the Auckland harbour. We are all safe!
"Come on, Bill, get up. Hear you had a bad night, but you better get going"
What was that all about? These dreams are getting right out of hand. Why did everything seem so real, so familiar? So threatening, yet so controlled? It would be nice to get a bit of control of this disrespectful realm where contradictions and surprise have become the norm, so that I could wake clear and refreshed, not feeling as if I'd just finished an under-water marathon.
Water. Must empty my bladder. After a night like that it will be chocka. Better get up, damn it.
7:15: Grab the sheet with one hand, push with the other. Sit up, remove pillow, swing feet over the side, feeling giddy and estranged. Fold a towel on the chair in case of "accident". Right fist on the chair, left on the bed, deep breath, head bobs down, arms push up, body jerks onto the chair, hands grab the chair, back falls into chair, feet stay crossed on the floor, caught up in the footrest of the chair. Curse them!
Push up and backwards into chair. Lean forward and force right leg off left. It's not easy. Wheel over to hand basin, wash hands and penis. Peel paper off catheter. Anoint end of penis and catheter with anaesthetic jelly. Why anaesthetic - can't feel a thing! Push catheter into penis. Place jug under catheter spout and push tube into penis about 350 mm until the urine flows. Watch for the tell tails of white matter which could indicate "occupation by unfriendly aliens". Are we all safe? Perhaps. Only the Lab technician knows for sure after the weekly samples are cultivated. The level creeps up the plastic jug. 750 ml. Damn. A big one. They say the bladder is no bigger than a clenched fist and gets stretched beyond recovery with more than 500ml. It can't contract enough to empty, and the bladder gets a residual pool of urine where infections can flourish.
I'll have to sneak this one across to the sluice room. If the Big Nurse sees it she'll have me back spraying Anti-Diuretic Hormone up my nose every night. Goes in your nose, comes out your mouth and every pore in your body. My whole world tasting and smelling of A.D.H., mouth and armpits particularly. And because my mouth is contaminated, so is everything I eat. A cynic would say that hospitals have ways and means to make all food taste similar, but only the darkest mind would suggest the taste of A.D.H. and armpits.
Jug onto sink bench, fold and squeeze end of catheter, withdraw, drain and replace in paper sleeve. Tie into knot. Clean penis and hands. Pick up three towels and two flannels and lay over knees. Place soap and shampoo on top. Pick up jug with right hand and wheel out to sluice room.
"Good morning, William! How are you today?"
It's not the Big Nurse, but she is looking at my jug, which I'm holding out like some school kid collecting charity when you open the door.
"All contributions gratefully received," I murmur, as I wheel one-handed into the wall. "How's the ward today?"
"The usual. Millie's rung in sick again. Here, give me that before you spill it on my shoes."
"Have you got me today?"
"Yes. Are you all right? You look half asleep. Can you look after yourself for a while cos I've got Nick and Tai too."
"I'll be OK, but if you hear any screaming down there, please come and pick up the bits."
Down the ward and into the cowshed. Institution of ablution. Reminds me of boarding school. Patients sitting behind plastic curtains on commode chairs in toilets and showers. I put my towels and soap on the sink bench.
"Is that you Peter? Thought you worked last night."
"Yes, well you see Millie's got her period again, lucky girl, and she's rung in crook, so someone's got to look after you boys."
"You're a bloody martyr, Peter."
This produces a high pitched giggle.
"I'm a bloody good martyr, though. You finished in there yet, Dion?"
"Nothing doing yet."
"Well hurry up or I'll get the suction out." More giggling.
I look for the gel, some gloves, a roll of paper and a brown paper bag. There's never any gel because only the registered nurses have the key to unlock the cupboard where it's kept. Finding more can waste two people about ten minutes. No wonder there is always congestion and delay. I once pointed this out to the Team Leader, and was eventually given my own tube.
"That's not what I meant," I said, knowing that someone would ask for it on the first day and I'd never see it again, or worse, I'd become known as the selfish hoarder of something as mundane as gel.
"Anyone got any gel?"
A tube slid out from under a curtain.
I backed in beside the stainless steel bowl, placed a towel over the wheel and applied the brakes. I looked into the murky realms of the bowl checking for the unflushed business of others. Paraplegics' interest in their own movements is shared with babies and some branches of the mentally disturbed. We are more interested in the quantity, however. I grasped the bar, pushed off with the other hand, crashed down onto the special seat and took a deep breath.
1: Take one examination glove and affix to right hand. Squeeze gel liberally onto index finger. Grasp bar with left hand and slide right hand through gap in special seat. Insert finger into anus and rotate. The sphincter contracts and relaxes like a filtering sea anemone. Breathe out and push down. Encourage stools out of rectum. Remove hand, strip off glove and place in paper bag. Make fist of hand and rub tummy forcibly in clockwise direction. Think of shit.
2: Repeat the above until empty. This can sometimes involve deep probing and prodding of the sausage casings of the bowel. You can feel the stools, but they won't come down. Today, however, they are sticky and motile. And messy. And smelly?
It's better than it used to be. The old commode chairs I'd started off wheeling to the cowshed did not allow the access of the special toilet seats, so a nurse had to don the glove and do the probing. You could sit in the cold rubbing your tummy for half an hour waiting for something, or someone, to arrive. Now the onus is on you to plumb those unknown depths and make shit happen.
3: Wipe off with three metres of paper. Drop in bag.
4: Transfer to chair.
5: Examine depths for evidence of movement.
"You OK in there, William?"
"Deeply moved." Thank you for your concern.
Take towels, flannels and soap to shower. Place towels on rail as far away from shower head as possible, but not far enough to keep dry during shower, and transfer onto shower seat. Push chair as far away from shower head as possible, but not far enough to keep dry during shower.
"Water on!" This random, cheerful cry is often heard from the other showers, hopefully warning the hapless cripple that a change of water pressure and temperature is either imminent or taking place. Undetectable scaldings on paralysed skin are thus theoretically avoided. Two minutes are spent adjusting the ancient mixer, which will only allow reasonable flow at luke temperatures, until "Water off" is heard from the next shower and adjustment recommences. I roll to one side, perilously, and soap my bum. The shower head on its length of garden hose is then used to wet the rest of my body. Starting with my face, neck and armpits, I flannel down my body to the feet, the area most likely to spread disease and discomfort, the area kept to the last. Gradually I remove the sweat, shit and fears of the last 24 hours.
"Ooh, you're looking good today my dear. Don't bend over like that in front of me, I may not be able to control myself." Peter's voice from the other side of the curtain would get him instant dismissal in any other institution, but we all know he's talking to his wife, Salome, who has been working with him here for the past 10 years. Laughter echoes down the ward as I wheel back to my room.
Back in my room the bed has been made taut, the water jug filled, and a small brown envelope with my name contains my morning pills - anti-inflammatory and panadeine for the (permanent) headache, and Prozac for general mood enhancement. (My moods are also permanent, but it's hard to say how or what). The Big Nurse thinks Prozac promotes sexual well being and is keen to find out just how it affects me. I advise her to take a handful and join me for a weekend of abandon.
Dressing is perfunctory, selection of clothes, automatic. The paraplegic issue of tracksuit trousers, however, is not without irony, for I haven't worn sporting costume since boarding school. I put the clothes on my bed, find the tinea cream and the orthotic, gawky, fur-lined ug boots which will hopefully enhance an atrophied lower circulation, and make a clumsy transfer back onto the bed. To late I realise that whoever made the bed has not lowered it back to wheel chair height. I've grazed past the abrasive wheel of the chair. In the mirror I look for the weal of outrage on the sensitive cheek of my bum, but it looks O.K. (on reflection). Groin and toes are carefully dried, and anti-fungicide applied. Holding the bed with one hand and lifting my legs with the other, I slide the track-suit up. Boots, singlet and skivvy follow. I feel like I am sitting on a beach ball full of jelly, which has had a tin can, my thorax, rammed over it. I am careful not to play the wobbly man as I transfer back onto the chair.
Now I'm ready to take the day.
8:15: Out and down the ward to the kitchen. Isaac, a neck-break rugby Quad sleeps in the sunny corner slumped forward in his chair, chin in hand. Tom, an incomplete Quad who broke his neck when he tripped over his cat during a midnight raid on the fridge, is looking out the window at the rabbits on the tennis court. He still admits to a strong love of animals, and even claims to miss the cat of his downfall. I think we all enjoy the rabbits and envy their mobility and Prozac-free procreative proclivity. Patrick arrives and is met with criticism. Apparently he started watching his bedside TV at two a.m. and woke every one in his room.
"I couldn't sleep," he explained. "Rose's snoring from the dayroom woke me up."
I looked for my menu slip and tray. I always tried to order food with a mind to its effect a day later, seeking that balance between binding and loosening food. Because I had been battling high cholesterol for years I instinctively eschewed cheese, eggs and butter, the very foods to keep me continent.
Garth came flying in and braked to a sudden stop on his back wheels. Scowling, he popped the top off his tray, shook his head, slammed the top back on and turned out of the room. Ron removed the bread, jam, milk and juice.
"Do you want his plums?" he asked me.
I reached across for the strange little porcelain container and its pair of stewed plums. Ron took the bread to the toaster. Maria sat at the end of the table, crying.
"What's the matter now?" Ron demanded, but Maria sat still and mute.
"You'll have to learn to feed yourself, everyone else is prepared to give it a go, why can't you?"
He rolled his eyes at me across the table and shrugged. I looked away, embarrassed by this unwelcome display. Maria is a problem. An old crip with a bad attitude. The manifestation of the frustration we all feel, devoid of the stoicism and determination which the Unit demands. Self pity is not welcome here. She has come for rehabilitation, without the essential spirit of self-help which is its key. But when you see people struggling to feed themselves with bent spoons strapped to their hands you certainly feel sorry for them, regardless of your own condition. Maria's problem is mental, not just physical, but will she get any help for it?
My problem is breakfast. Knowing my fondness for fruit, the others all give me theirs. Why don't they want it? Same reason they refuse their vegetables, even the sprigs of parsley adorning the scrambled eggs that those with special diets receive. I have to be careful not to eat too much fruit. Regularity is a jewel amongst habits, but difficult to maintain with no sensation below the navel. So I have a small bowl of cornflakes, the fruit, and some toast with marmalade.
"Cup of Milo, Willyum?" asked Lady Vai, the ward factotum, who spends most of her time scrubbing the tyre-marks from the gym floor with an abrasive pad pushed and rotated beneath her right shoe.
"Yes, please!" Lady Vai knew not to add sugar, or too much milk. Lady Vai probably knew as much about the patients as anyone in the ward.
Nick, a high break quad (knocked off his motorbike), came flying around the corner in his new electric chair. His nose is scratched from falling out on the grass a few days ago. Two short-cutting schoolkids had found him near the rabbits and reported finding a "dead man!"
"How's the cross-country champ?" we greet him, and he smiles and tries to speak through his larynx. He has become resigned to no-one straining to hear his replies, for we all know it is almost impossible to understand him.
The gutter sparrows were moving into the kitchen to glean the toast crumbs as I went back towards my room, dodging Maria's electric chair as it weaved semi-controlled down the ward. The phone rang at the nurses' station. The big nurse asked me if I would take the portable down to Moses, the new guy in Room 2. He lay flat on his back, looking up at a few photos and get-well-cards arranged on a coarse mesh suspended above his face. Name, fracture level, D.O.B. and D.O.A. were crudely printed in red pen on a card behind him. C.5, the poor bastard and just 17.
"Hi Moses, I'm Bill, here's the phone for you." His eyes rolled, and his perfect teeth were revealed in a wide grin.
"Couldja put it up here by my head, please mate?" he whispered.
I leant forward and held the phone to his ear.
"Hello," he managed, and for 20 minutes conducted a conversation which I heard as mainly "Yeah" interspersed with "Oh yeah", chuckle, and things like "Were there many girls?", "Some beers, eh?" and "Who else was there?", while my arm fatigued and stiffened into what became a ten minute salute. Beside the I.D. card was a newspaper clipping of Moses pre-D.O.A. looking sharp in his footy gear and another of two eyes looking out from a bandage swathe entitled "Plucky Moses Fights Back after Scrum Collapse Tragedy!". After 10 "OK"s, "See ya", and a "Thanks mate" he went to sleep. His mouth and eyes were the only things that had moved.
9:00 am: Back to my room and onto the bed. I was due at the gym in half an hour and thought a little lie down would give me some sadly lacking energy. Next thing the Big Nurse came in with the doctor, a local G.P. who looked after our daily needs.
"Back in bed already. It's not a rest home we're running here, you know." She laughed.
She has a professional ability to unsettle and placate at the same time. We first met when I was stretchered in from the ambulance, three weeks post D.O.A. She came in with a ward round and stood and looked at me, arms akimbo, with a huge smile on her face. I met her smile full on with one of my own; I was very pleased to be there.
"This one's going to be trouble," she had announced, and for the first time I heard the chuckle which flowed in various strengths, from various sources, up and down the ward throughout my confinement. The interest in my bum which I had encountered at Auckland Hospital was still in evidence.
"Roll over and take your pants down."
"The girls at Auckland used to pull them down for me," I had replied.
"Well you'll have to get used to doing it for yourself, this is a rehabilitation unit, not a Hospital."
She then introduced me to two other nurses and they log-rolled me onto my side and eased the track suit down.
"Just as I thought, white with a hole in it."
"What did you expect?"
"They're usually brown with a hole around here."
Today they were looking at my toes, and decided to call in a podiatrist to cut the nails, which had begun to curl back menacingly. Given a pair of scissors I would have cut them myself, but this was apparently a specialist area.
"Still getting pins and needles?" the Doctor asked.
I nodded. The Big Nurse rubbed my feet. "There's a lot of fluid here." she remarked to no one in particular.
My foot must have spasmed in seeming response, as she started.
"Did you do that?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"How are the headaches?" he asked.
"Still the same," I replied. "About the same as a two bottle of red wine hangover, if you know what I mean." (They liked us to use a scale of 1 to 10 to help describe pain.)
He smiled, and looked down. "I know what you mean, anything else?" he said.
"You're a patronising prick, Billy," I thought to myself as I closed my eyes.
Someone was in the room.
"Have we met?" I asked motioning towards the chair.
"I'm Tony," he said. "When you hear what I'm doing here you can ask me to go if you like."
Interesting. Who could have such a simultaneously weak and strong self image? I suffer fools gladly - you'd have to be pretty special before I'd tell you to fuck off - but how was he to know that?
"I'm a psychiatrist."
Half my body froze. A sparrow called to his mate from the gutter.
"A sic-sic psychiatrist," I stammered. Had he come to see where all the unauthorised Prozac was going?
"You must know my darling, and of me," I volunteered, to change the subject. What subject? Could you hide anything from these radar-sharp psychic prospectors anyway?
"Yes, of course." He smiled and eased himself into the chair.
"Have you come to see me about the Prozac?" I blurted, realising that this might be easier to discuss than his associate shrink, my ex-darling, who had driven off with two cats and the kids in the Commodore a week after graduating Dip. Prof. Ethics [Med] two months before D.O.A.
"No, of course not." He smiled and leant forward in the chair towards me. "It's part of our job to see how all the patients in here are getting on, but I don't have to stay if you don't want me to."
"No, no, stay a while," I replied, thinking it could be quite good to talk to someone a bit like myself for a change. "What can I do for you?"
He smiled. "It's actually more like what I can do for you. How are you taking it all?"
"How do I look?" I returned. "You're the expert in these matters. I actually feel all right. Is that normal?"
"We all have different mechanisms for dealing with grief," he said. "Your's might be the development of an aggressive questioning attitude."
A.Q.A. syndrome, sounds certifiable. I pondered before answering.
"OK, but perhaps I don't feel the classical stages of grief. I've just read there are five stages, but I've never felt much anger, there was no-one to really blame, and I've accepted the fact that I'm not going to walk again since the very beginning in the Department of Critical Care when the doctor told me. I think that is the first thing I remember, actually, apart from bits and pieces with the ambulance."
"I actually felt more pissed off when she left me. Perhaps there is a limit to how much anger you can feel at any one time. Perhaps the Prozac fills up all the anger receptors and things that would normally infuriate you don't matter any more because you just can't get mad. Neurologically. Physically."
"Perhaps." He smiled. He never stopped smiling. Perhaps it was amusing to hear spinal patients rabbiting homespun on his own trained domain. Perhaps he too was taking Prozac. "It's O.K to be angry, you know," he said after a pause.
"Sure, but I'm a social animal, I need people, and who wants to have much to do with an angry bastard with a broken back? I get lots of visitors now because they are my friends and they love me, but I'm also a kind of novelty. Eventually I'll be out of here, and in the big wide world I'll be just another who will not be met in passing, because I'll be out of circulation. These are the busy nineties, people have to make a real effort to find social time now. We no longer drop in on each other, we're all flat out with double figure mortgage rates and finding the double incomes to support them. It's all a feminist plot!"
He laughed, and left the silence of trained therapy for me to elaborate into.
"I mean, if you allow that the powers that be, quote unquote, want more money from the plebs, the best way to do it is to up the interest rates. The only way to do this without paying out more wages is to get everyone working. Therefore you have to get the women out there. Therefore you start writing a whole lot of books telling women it's not only OK to join the workforce, but the M.C.P.s are actively preventing them from doing so, in a fascist attempt to retain power. Why else would they be stupid enough to forsake their golf, their Ponsonby-on-street coffee mornings, their homes and gardens to go out and take men on in such a shitty area as the work place? How many workers actually enjoy their jobs and would continue if they found another way to pay the bills- about ten per-cent, isn't it? They got conned; we all got conned, and yet they still behave as if it was all their big idea."
"Are you angry with women, then?"
"Of course not, I mean, not all of them. It's these feminists who think they've created a new social order. It's all bullshit."
Uh huh! To be translated as 'now spill your guts and make a total lunatic of yourself!'
"There used to be a word, used mainly by women, that had no male equivalent - 'misogynist'. Now the women have come up with one - 'feminist'."
A slight tremor appeared in his smile. "Surely not."
"Yes indeed. We've got 'female', sort of gender-type classification, 'feminine', to emphasise the female characteristics, and 'feminist', which now means 'man-hater'."
He managed a small laugh, and looked at his watch.
"Yeah, I'm due at the gym now myself, come back and see me anytime," I said, pulling myself up on the bed. "I've got a theory for any occasion."
"I'll catch up with you soon." He looked relieved to be on his way, obviously a crypto-feminist sympathiser.
Was thinking about a feminist conspiracy making me angry? No. Did I really believe that simplistic crap? Of course not. Just another flail at comprehension of a complex social issue. Trying to be funny. Just showing off again. Taking things too far?
The gym-workshop-occupational therapy complex lay about 50 metres away on slightly higher ground. When I was first directed there the nurse had told me to go "up the hill". My shoulders and arms had been wasted from laying motionless in bed. For every day prone in bed it takes perhaps a week to regain muscle tone. That would mean over half a year to get to pre-DOA fitness. The workouts in the gym were helping. Today I barely noticed the shallow incline.
The concrete path lay beneath a covered way beside some grass and planted clumps. Once the budget for the place had provided a gardener whose blooms had adorned the ward. Now the roses were the domain of the patients, and any member of staff who could find the enthusiasm during lunch to tend them.
I rolled in through the self-opening door. The walls of the large foyer were adorned with garish prize winning art from the foot and mouth artists. Disability may encourage artistic endeavour, but it's no muse. Lady Vai was swinging from a large electric floor polisher. "Hello, Willyum," she mouthed cheerfully over the noise. I performed my perfunctory close examination of the floor, and eventually singled out a black wheelie mark for her attention. She laughed, enjoying my acknowledgment of her hard work, and its futility. Most of the gym floor was overlain with the daily applied skidmarks.
The gym itself was a fine structure, built in the days when purpose transcended budget. Garth, despite his lack of breakfast, had the energy to shoot a few baskets on the west end hoop. Patients exercised. Head injury patients from C. Ward practised motor co-ordination skills ranging from assembling blocks to trying to walk in a straight line. A pit bull terrier pup charged my chair.
The pull-down, where I would start work, was empty. I wheeled over to it, shouting "Morning all" as I crossed the floor. Loud displays were not usual in there, and a few of the boys laughed.
"Good morning, Mr Gruar," replied Clare, who had been recently elevated to head Physio, and felt some need to preserve decorum.
I adjusted the weights to 24 kg, backed in, applied the brakes, grabbed the bar, breathed in and pulled it down behind my back, breathed out and repeated 50 times. Dion, a rugby quad, struggled to press down the wheelbarrow in front of me. His cousin Justin sat at his knees to catch him if he suddenly toppled forward in spasm. Justin had acquired a full-time job as minder. He was grossly overweight and I could not help thinking that it was lucky he did not have to be manhandled about like his unfortunate charge.
A New Zealand trialist when he tripped over and broke his neck, Dion took his impairment bitterly. He had left school early to work in a factory run by the sponsors of his team. His car, loaded with all his belongings, was parked at the grounds to take him to his new flat after the game.
Watching the struggles of his atrophying body I was reminded that although I appeared to be in a bad way, my predicament paled beside the horror of the athletic younger men around me. We were bonded though our differing injuries and the strange experience of staring death in the face. I had sustained serious head injuries, fractured my skull in three places, bled internally, and fractured a rib, yet I got off lightly when I look around here.
Dion was only good for a few weights on the wheelbarrow. I dropped more on to bring the combined weight up to 65 kg. Once I tried 85 kg that Garth had left, and the weights stayed immobile while I went up and down. The heavy cast iron was awkward, and the quiet atmosphere was again disrupted as the weights clanged together.
I backed in between the arms of the wheelbarrow. Made in the workshop with commercially sourced weights, it could be tricky: if you didnt get your arms in the right place before you pressed down, you got stuck at the bottom feeling as if you could be thrown onto the floor requiring help.
After 50 press-downs, and concomitant heavy breathing, I proceeded to the Pec machine to select the raucous student broadcast on the wall radio. We weren't playing radio wars, but Garth and I enjoyed the challenging edge of alternative radio, much to the distaste of some of the others. The hands that move the pectorals controlled the air-waves at the gym, so we managed to challenge the tyrannical humdumb "classics" of mainstream broadcasting and its obsequious talkingback with a few minutes of "Rage Against the Machine."
The Pec Machine exercises the pectorals as your arms move steel handles vertically across the chest until your elbows touch. Resistance should be supplied by vulcanised rubber inserts, but these are all broken. Loops of bicycle inner tube have been cleverly knotted together to replace them. Care must be taken in attaching these rubbers, as they can fly out of the machine and across the gym, causing pain when the elbows bang together, and great surprise when they hit someone.
I gave the requisite 50 squeezes and listened to the radio until the pushup machine became available. We are supposed to move from machine to machine in an anti-clockwise direction, but the order is often disrupted.
Beside me John exercised his hands. His compound injuries, received when he ran into the path of a car after an argument with his girl-friend, stem from damage to both spine and head. He cannot walk, and his speech is slow, deliberate, yet fortunately accurate. "I had everything going for me," he told me sadly. "A good job as a mechanic and another working in a bar at night."
"You'll be OK." I replied lamely, but he just shook his head, gave his broad smile and looked away to the floor.
As far as I can tell, no stigma is attached to the circumstances leading to one's internment in this place, which is just as well. I have been told of accidents involving booze and dope, but generally there is just an overlay of everyday bad luck with every story. Some of my visitors anticipate that the young Polynesian males who are over-represented here with their long plaits, tats and attitudes must be road accident victims, but most of them are not. There are even three patients who suddenly developed spinal dysfunction with no accident at all. Tai just woke up to find his legs didn't work, and Freda developed bleeding on the spinal column after an operation. These unlucky ones do not receive the benefit of ACC assistance, which, despite the current denial of the lump-sum payment which is our moral and contractual right, can be enlightened and extremely helpful within its bureaucratic constraints.
The pushup is free. To the accompaniment of some gangsta-rap I wheeled over and set the weights to 21kg. Smiling young Americans in racing wheelchairs shone out from glossy prints on the wall. The disability business is large and booming. Kiwi sports stars flexed previously unknown muscles, illustrating how each machine will enhance our bodies. I pressed the weights up and down and thought about my breathing.
William Gruar 1996
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Reproduced in Paralinks with the expressed consent and approval of the author.