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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 44 - Scalpel-sharp words failed to have the operating staff in stitches

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 patient".

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.

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