I AM a practising patient.
In an eventful life of afflictions, mostly minor, I have seen many
doctors, some eagerly brandishing stethoscopes to track down the root-
and-branch causes of my vague malaises and others who, I suspect, were
muttering under their breaths, "Not you again," before telling me to
"stick out your tongue, sit down, stand up" and then, "send in the next
Bless their spatulas and thermometers, I have visited some doctors’ home
surgeries so often that I was almost as intimate with their domestic
affairs as the doctors were. Some medicos looked as if the sight of ill
people perpetually depressed them while others seemed bright and eager
to discuss every subject apart from my complaint.
No matter, I admire them all, even the Army ones who, invariably aided
by a suspicious corporal, would look at me and other wilting,
sick-parade warriors and growl: "You’re all faking." Sometimes, his
gut-reaction diagnosis was uncannily accurate.
I am also a connoisseur of hospitals; been cut, stitched, sedated,
purged, pilled and capsuled, and have even joked to the surgeon,
repeating the Duke of Monmouth’s words to his executioner, "Do not hack
me as you did my Lord Russell," - scalpel-sharp words that failed to
have the operating staff in stitches.
I have been in hospitals - they are scarce now - where hygienic
principles were so rigidly practised, that the antiseptic air
annihilated germs and staggered patients and others that resembled, in
parts, the sordid state of the Crimean War hospital at Scutari before
Florence Nightingale carbolically breez-ed through them. Indeed, she
stated: "It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as the very first
requirement in a hospital, that it should do the sick no harm."
When I was in hospital many years ago, the killer virus, MRSA, was not
snapping at patients’ immune systems, but there were hazards enough, not
the least of which was hospital food that sometimes was toothsome and
sustaining-enough to stoke up the strength of the battered hulks berthed
after operations but too often probably looked and tasted like that
rejected by the digestive juices of the crew of HMS Bounty.
Apart from giggling nurses chattering in sleepless wards in the small
hours, there were the hospital visitors - often too many - some
attempting to cheer up patients with a litany of their own ills, others
draping themselves about beds like healthy vultures, plucking patients’
grapes, sampling biscuits and displaying, rotary mouthfuls of goodwill.
I remember the general-purpose smiles, the courage of bed-sitters in the
face of human disaster, their virtue in visiting when they could have
been at the pub, the match or watching the telly and their evident
relief when it was time to go, mentally pocketing for re-use, their
stock of reassuring phrases such as, "You’re looking great, considering
..." or, "you’ll soon be limbo dancing again," delivered to patients
feeling as lively as newly dug-up Pharaohs.
Then, there are others who bring a quiet companionship, broken by
periods of sympathetic silence while the bed-bound and the caller
restfully contemplate life’s vagaries. These visitors exuding
reassurance, carefully stock up any deficiencies in patients’ personal
lockers, chat quietly to the ward sister, arrive promptly and do not
stay the full time. They are a healing joy.
I mention all this because Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary saw the last
patient to be treated at the Lauriston Place buildings leave last
Sunday, for the new £184 million infirmary at Little France.
I have been a patient several times in the old building, which was begun
in 1872 and follow-ed Florence Nightingale’s principles of open lay-out.
While ward hygiene might not always have come up to her
unswervingly-austere standards, I was treated successfully and found the
medical, surgical and nursing staff, often working under relentless
pressure, dedicated, highly-skilled and reassuringly cheerful.
The new infirmary, the largest in Britain to be built by the priv-ate
finance initiative, has been criticised in the British Medical Journal
as having bed numbers based on "widely optimistic predictions of
increased efficiency and alternative sources of care." It is also
allegedly suffering air-conditioning problems.
I hope any teething troubles will be overcome soon and that the
infirmary will maintain its status as one of the most prominent jewels
in the NHS crown. A practising patient, grateful for the old Royal,
salutes the new.