Some time ago, I found myself loitering around A&E.
It’s what you do when you’re on a night shift and everything on the ward is quiet, when you’ve exhausted every possibility of the vending machine and run out of things to say to the security guard. When all your patients are sleeping soundly in their beds, you may find yourself heading down there purely to try and stay awake. If nothing else, they have brighter lighting and a better class of chocolate.
On this particular night, it was absolutely pouring with rain. It was the kind of weather where people bluster in heroically, stamping their feet and letting out lots of loud gasps, just in case you didn’t realise how brave they were being. Other than a man vomiting theatrically in one of the cubicles, the department was fairly peaceful (I hesitate to use the Q word, even on here), so I helped myself to a few chocolate hobnobs and sat down with a copy of Bella.
I’d only been sitting there a few minutes when the telephone rang. Obviously, this isn’t unusual in an Emergency Department, but this was no ordinary telephone. This was the special telephone. The one that rings with an old fashioned bell. And when that telephone rings, it means that something really bad has happened. In this case, the something-really-bad was an eighty-three year old lady who was having a heart attack. I’m going to call her Elsie.
When the special telephone rang, magical things started to happen. People appeared from nowhere and put on plastic aprons. They brought out lots of mysterious equipment and started writing everything down. If you ever want an example of good team work, the resuscitation room is an excellent place to start. Everything is done with breath-taking efficiency. After a few minutes, everyone had been given a role to play and the performance was ready to begin. They just had to wait for Elsie.
When she arrived, it wasn’t with the crash and drama of an episode of Casualty. It was quietly and almost apologetically through the ambulance bay at the back of the hospital. One of the nurses was doing chest compressions, but she wasn’t riding side-saddle like in the movies and there was no sign of George Clooney anywhere. They flew past me in one giant chain of human beings and vanished through the swinging doors of the resuscitation room. Then I noticed that behind the paramedics and the bags of saline and the red blankets and the chaos, was Elsie’s husband. He was old and bewildered and wet from the rain. They asked him if he’d like to sit in the relatives’ room, but he was too upset. The kind of upset where you want to pace up and down and stamp your feet. Half an hour ago, he’d probably been sitting with Elsie in their sitting room, watching the television and thinking about calling it a night. Now he was in a bright noisy hospital and his wife was lying on a trolley, covered in leads and blankets and surrounded by strangers. I’ve been that kind of upset before and the last thing you want to do is sit down with a nice cup of tea.
They tried very hard with Elsie, but her eighty-three year old body had had enough of this world and wanted to leave. I watched them work on her. I watched the drugs going in and the blood being taken out and I watched as they called time of death. I wonder if I will ever get used to seeing people die. Although it’s not the dying part which really upsets me, it’s the part afterwards, where people go back to eating chocolate hobnobs and reading Bella and come in from the rain, stamping their feet. That’s the bit which gets me every time.
I knew that very soon, they would be taking Elsie’s husband into one of the quiet rooms, where they would turn his life upside down with one sentence. He had stopped pacing now. When I left the resus room, he was in the middle of the corridor, staring at the floor and looking for somewhere to be. As I watched him standing there, the rest of the world walking around him, I noticed something for the first time. Hung over his arm, slightly crumpled and with its belt trailing on the floor, lay Elsie’s navy blue raincoat.