I drop in to collect a prescription from the pharmacy at St Mary’s Hospital. It’s in the basement of the old Victorian part of the hospital (as opposed to the new ‘Carbuncle’ wing and the many ‘prefab steel box’ annexes). I always have a shudder on entering this building. As I pass beneath the blue plaque that tells how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin right on this spot I remember being here in a wheelchair. I was twenty-five years old. I was just beginning to recover from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an illness that had rendered me totally paralysed. Having not eaten food for two months I had developed some kind of digestive problem. The super-boffins at the National Neurological Hospital, Queen’s Square couldn’t deal with it. Those brain-the-size-of-the-Albert-Hall types only trouble themselves with mysterious or incurable neurological syndromes. So they transferred me over to St Mary’s for a little inter-hospital holiday to get sorted out. It turned out to be the holiday from hell.
I was housed in a ward in that old Victorian building. It was back before they built the Carbuncle wing. The ward was a long dingy corridor with a series of tiny rooms leading off it. Everything: the floor, the walls and the curtains, was a grey-green colour. The linoleum had a streaky swirl motif and the walls were decorated with a kind of spatter pattern. The gruesome practicality of the decor was obvious. There was a TV room where last-gaspers with livid faces sat around hanging onto their drip stands for dear life and smoking. The whole place smelt of Dettol, ashtrays and boiled kippers.
They put me into a little room that was designed for one or maybe two people but now accommodated three beds arranged in a U shape. I was in bed number one. I couldn’t walk or get out of bed on my own. In bed number two was a malingering old woman who was afraid to go home. She whinged and whimpered a lot. In bed number three was Val. Val was dying of cancer. Her skin was peeling off in huge flakes. She was in terrible pain and she often cried out. The beds were so close together that we could all reach out and touch one another. The nurses pretty much just left us to get on with it together as best we could. The cleaners felt that it was completely beneath them to actually clean anything. Whoever cooked the food had obviously been brought by special appointment from a lunatic asylum in Belarus.
It wasn’t so awful for me, a young woman looking forward to recovering and getting back to her life. The experience of being paralysed had already taught me to relax and accept what is. In other words I was able to put up with situations that might otherwise be intolerable. But I could not comprehend how anyone could think it was OK to take care of Val in surroundings so devoid of dignity, joy or comfort. I prayed that that room would not be the last place that Val ever saw on this big, beautiful planet of ours.
After a few days of treatment my stomach problem had cleared up and I anticipated returning to the peaceful, leafy environs of Queen’s Square. There is always a gift in every situation: by this point I was actually looking forward to being taken by ambulance to an acute neurological hospital. Only some ridiculous NHS transport logistics related bureau-bungle meant that I couldn’t be moved. I ended up being stuck in that room for two weeks. On the positive side, I did take my first steps during my stay at St Mary’s. I think my motivation was turbo-charged by desperation to get the hell out of there. If I could've run, I would've.
I swore to myself then and there that I will never die of cancer in St Mary’s Hospital.
Eventually I made a full recovery from the Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Not long after that I bought myself private health insurance, even though I couldn’t afford it.