Friday, September 30, 2011

Wednesday part one: a journey to hell

Wednesday comes in two parts. In the evening, I travel to Glasgow to perform extracts of "The Gospel According to Jesus Queen of Heaven".

But in the morning I take my mother-in-law for an out patient's appointment at the Western General.

As her health problems multiply, I notice a distinct tendency for the various health agencies to abandon her. She makes them uneasy. They know they can't cure her. They know that in the end what afflicts her is old age, and that the eventual outcome is death.

They are simply not able to deal with this. They're not honest with her about it: they simply drop her off their books as quietly and as inconspicuously as possible. They try to load someone else with the responsibility for her care.

It started with the cardiologist when the cardioversion failed to correct her irregularly racing heart. The GP passed her onto to an old people's day hospital in Leith. They have passed her on to the various specialists that are testing her bowels and her throat. The GP she knows and trusts has gone on sabbatical; the other one she came to know has left for another practice. When they have to test her blood, they always send a locum who does not know her.

I am not much better, really. I am terrified of being landed with her full time care, and keep detaching myself.

So there she is: increasingly breathless, struggling on as best she can.

Steering her through the hospital system on Wednesday meant I needed to confront my guilt over all this.

And try to find a wheelchair. Lothian Health Board rely on shockingly badly designed wheelchairs that steer with the back wheel which means that the only practical way to use them is to drag their occupant backwards like a sack of rubbish. They never have enough by the entrance to the outpatient departments. So the first few minutes is spent frantically searching for one.

None of the doors are really wide enough to pull the chairs through. So that's another struggle. The whole building sends forth two powerful messages:

1) As a human being, we do not think about you at all.

2) It is a huge mistake to get involved with us if you are ill.

We have to wait for 45 minutes. This is actually unusual: the doctor she is going to see is an expert in his field (blood pressure) and in his person represents the very best traditions of the health service. He listens, he takes in what he is being told, and he always does something to make Jean feel better.

He apologises in person for the delay; and explains he won't be able to se Jean immediately, but that his assistant will see her.

His assistant represents the worst traditions of the health service. She has no listening skills, no ability to show respect or concern, and is plainly completely out of her depth. She also speaks fast with a strong accent that Jean cannot understand.

I am being unfair to her. At least she has the sense to fetch her boss: who does not abandon Jean. He orders a blood test, an x ray, a review of her medication, and another appointment in a month's time.

On one level what he does may be a little futile; but on another it really matters. He leaves Jean with the sense that someone is concerned about her and is trying to make her better.

Unfortunately it means I have to drag her to X Ray. Which is about half a mile away, through largely unsigned corridors.

On the way we have to go to the loo. There is a particular toilet Jean favours; which is unfortunately not designed for the disabled. I have to park the chair in a narrow corridor which blocks two doorways.

She treats my transsexualtiy in the same way as she treats death: she ignores it in the hope it will go away.

This means I can't help her inside the ladies. I have to trust she can somehow negotiate the washbasins, the narrow spaces, and the awkwardly positioned cubicles and doors.

It all takes a very long time.

Eventually we end up in a waiting area off a corridor so inhuman it defies description.

Nothing happens. The X ray people all seem to be out to lunch.

Waiting there, I can feel myself losing the will to live. There's no reception on my phone; I feel cut off from the world. I try to run through my lines: I can't remember a single one. I feel cut off from everything that gives my life meaning and enables me to deal with it.

I try to understand why an institution as noble as our health service should have ended up like this. How a building supposedly dedicated to health should so spectacularly contrive to make you ill.

It is beyond me. Eventually we emerge. It's as if we've escaped from a journey to the underworld.

Or emerged from hell. Life can begin again.

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