(Since I wrote this hospital (the Kent and Sussex in Tunbridge Wells) has been closed down. However I keep it in tribute to the many nationalities, who before Brexit, kept the NHS afloat)
During the week that the media deplored the continued existence of mixed sex wards I was recovering from an operation in one of them. Fellow women and men in the thirty bed surgical dormitory included victims of assault, accident and disease. Most of us were in too much discomfort or pain to consider whether we were also humiliated by the proximity of the opposite sex. Personally I found the proximity of their all too healthy and voyeuristic visitors the most trying part of the ordeal.
Much that has been written about mixed sex wards is however true. There is no privacy. Even when the nurses draw the curtains to change a catheter, dress a wound or to help an old lady on to the commode, every fart and gurgle and cry of pain is audible. Those patients that are mobile stroll by attached to their bags of bloody urine, or wheel drip sacks like booty from the battle they have just won. The toilets on my ward were also unisex with only a couple of adjacent cubicles, a washbasin and a shower
It is true, too, that all the staff from the nurses to the cleaners and the caterers work under extreme pressure. The only people who have time to chat are the purveyors of sweets and junk food. Why they are tolerated is a mystery. Perhaps their very presence is considered therapeutic, but the sale of confectionery would seem about as healthy as sending each patient a get well card sprinkled with anthrax.
The medical staff hardly have time between the constant and unpredictable demands of patients in distress to carry out the routine chores of monitoring, replenishing drips and saline washes, or seeing to the personal hygiene of their charges. In the mornings when the consultants rush round like princelings each with their coterie of sycophants the ward resembles Piccadilly Circus. Why is it that these doctors alone address the patient in the third person? It is as though they cannot see that just beyond the bed end notes an anxious human being lies craving reassurance.
All this, I suppose, is to be expected in a busy NHS hospital. Revealed for me, however, behind the screen of pain, discomfort and recovery was a richer cultural experience. That first, confused night, I imagined I was in a tropical jungle. All the electronic bleeping and winking I took to be the courtship of nocturnal insects, the red lights the eyes of predators. An irritable old man down the end of the ward kept up an interminable call of “Come on. Come On.” I pictured him as an ugly frog squatting on a rotten log, croaking his refrain. The wool-gathering crone in the bed opposite burbled away to herself all night like the waters of a forest brook. Phones stabbed the night like hunters spears and at one point a radio call was transmitted through the foliage of my conscious, “Trauma. Ten minutes.” This precipitated a stampede in the ward.
Impressions of the exotic were reinforced when I saw that the nurses did indeed come from all corners of the world, but this being Tunbridge Wells, most of the patients were white. It was the reverse of a zoo. We, the common species, were caged while the exotic species much greater in variety came round and looked at us.
Nurses from different cultures interacted in their own ways with the Southern English public. The manner of the warm, no-nonsense British West Indian nurse contrasted with the two young black girls from South African who shuffled up to the patients with foot-dragging shyness, never making eye contact, reluctant to trample on their personal space. They were kind, gentle and quiet but still learning. The almost transparently fair Finn was calm, efficient and reserved, a tiny Japanese who controlled the medicine trolley was meticulous, patient but difficult to understand. When she was trying to say on the telephone, “Hang on a second,” it sounded as though she had gulped something from her own trolley. The unhurried Ghanaian student nurse always had time for a chat, but far and away the most gentle, the most firm and the most confident were nurses from the Far East. I did not identify their countries of origin but their self assurance was contagious.
The only carping I encountered came from a local nurse, but then complaining is in our culture, isn’t it? One particularly loud-mouthed slattern commented that like the foreign nurses, she should have time off to attend English language classes. She had a point. She needed it more than many of them.
Despite all these recruits and agency nurses the hospital was still short staffed and poorly equipped. The one oxygen cylinder for two wards was raced around like a horse drawn pump at the Fire of London. Batteries were always failing in the few machines that did work. The shared commode never cooled off. Urine bottles ran short. “Oh, just use your water jug,” called one exasperated nurse.
But what struck me most as I surfaced to all this chaos was the overriding harmony. All these women, mainly women, from different ethnic and national backgrounds and working together in quite arbitrary teams, co-operated extraordinarily well. They even managed to remain in good humour throughout their shifts. I was there for four days. God knows how they can stick it day after day. Florence Nightingale might well be appalled at the conditions of this 21 century mixed ward, but she would applaud the dedication of the staff.