Hospitals Then and Now: – Guest Post by Felicity Sidnell Reid…

Riffling through my files the other day, I came across a poem I wrote, over 40 years ago, when I spent nearly a week in an English hospital with pneumonia. Since I recently returned home after a two day stay in hospital to have my knee replaced, here in Canada, I couldn’t help but reflect on the differences and similarities of those experiences.

All those years ago, I was reading Victorian poetry and became interested in the work of W. E. Henley. His most innovative series of poems was “In Hospital”, inspired by a stay of three years in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. He had contracted tuberculosis in the bones of his leg and was still an adolescent when he had to have one of his legs amputated. Later his other leg was at risk but a determined fight to save it conducted by the famous surgeon, Sir Joseph Lister and Henley himself, preserved it. The poems, written from the patient’s point of view, describe hospital life or are character sketches of hospital personnel, with which we can easily empathise even 150 years later. The final poem of the series is a joyous celebration of leaving the hospital and the euphoria the poet feels driving home in early summer.

“Carry me out

Into the wind and the sunshine,

Into the beautiful world.”

For Henley, the noisy, dirty streets around the hospital are full of life and even the smell of the mud seems “like a breath of the sea” and a taste of freedom

By the late 1960s, there had been many changes in hospitals of course, but the women on my ward were also a reminder of the past. They were all countrywomen born into the agricultural world of Flora Thompson’s From Lark Rise to Candleford. Their experiences had much in common with those chronicled by Ronald Blythe in Akenfield, a book published in 1969 about the huge changes which swept away  so much of traditional village life in the early twentieth century.

Betty was the dominant character on the ward.  She was a lively, energetic sixty-five-year-old who had started her career as a live in maid-of-all-work when she was twelve. But her employers believed in education and had made sure she received basic schooling and encouraged her to apply for better jobs. She had married young, had a large family and now owned, with her husband, a flourishing business—a chain of several restaurants. She was wild to get out of hospital and back to her busy life. There were a couple of quiet, middle-aged women who said little but liked to watch television together in the common room down the hall and Ellen, who was well into her 80s though still slender and upright. She had a friendly smile, but sat at the window, looking out over the nearby fields and woods, detached and in a world of her own. She seemed to be convalescent and I guess it must have been Betty, who knew everything and loved to tell, who informed me that Ellen was a widow now and had no family. She and her husband had lived all their married lives on a small-holding in the Fen country which surrounded the city. Their cottage wasn’t in good repair and neighbours were few, so the hospital was reluctant to release her back to an isolated existence in the countryside. I wrote the following poem about her.

In Hospital

Of her hands she’s vain;

and still her fingers

worn but pliant,

curve gracefully.

Her hands swallow

the pale pink lotion

she applies to them.

Softly, down her back,

bent now not hunched,

as once, over quotidian tasks,

her silver braided hair

falls quietly like some

distant water, only waiting

a brighter day to ripple gold,

as it did long ago.

She perches on her chair.

bends forward, leaning

her cheek on her hand

eyes fixed on the mirror,

where, all at once, youth

blooms from her old bones,

for that’s how he touched

her face, over sixty years ago!

These days hospital stays are so short that there is scarcely time to yearn for home. Days are filled with instructions on how to manage after one’s release. However, I thought that, since I am not allowed to drive for six weeks, that enforced confinement might encourage creativity once I got home.  I was expecting to spend a lot of time writing, and of course reading. I have done a great deal of the latter but sadly very little of the former. I rejoice in my release from considerable pain, but looking after myself, even with the help of family and friends, going to physiotherapy, doctors’ visits etc. turn out to be exhausting. Reading a book and then falling asleep is what I find myself doing all too often. When will my energy and ability to focus return I’d like to know? If we write to distract ourselves from our pain or to face up to difficult events, as many people have argued, I am hoping that more positive experiences, being able to leave the house on my own and organise my life again for example, will prove, after this period of hibernation, to be equally inspiring.

Felicity Sidnell Reid

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