Two years ago I worked in one of Londons biggest teaching hospitals. At the time I was curious about working as an Occupational Therapist (as a secondary career to supplement my writing) and to this end took a job as an OT and Physiotherapy assistant to find out if this really was the environment I wanted to work in. After a year I had my answer, and it was a defiant and definite no.
My first rotation was to be in the grim and dimly lit Queen Marys Ward. Photographs adorned the long corridors of the Victorian era when a strict matron in a starched uniform governed each ward, and dirt and germs were the rightful enemy of good health. How things change. I learnt more in my first week at the Middlesex hospital than I did in the following months I was there. Queen Marys Ward was for Care of The Elderly. It was here that I learnt that TLC did not mean love or kindness but instead that the end was inevitable and that no drugs or intervention would change this. TLC was a euphemism. It was not an act or an instruction instead it indicated a reluctance, in that notorious English way, to voice the truth death was, as ever, in our midsts. Each morning there would be a handover and new names scrawled in red or blue on the whiteboard. And, so often, after a weekend away, an abrupt RIP where the TLC had been.
I found that the most difficult and most meaningful thing I encountered when I was working there was the unavoidable fact that people die. And we make connections, ranging from love, loyalty to grudging indifference but, in the end, it stops for all of us. There were no provisions to talk about this. I worked with a young woman with breast cancer. She was a single mother and had a six year old daughter, whom she adored. I did relaxations sessions with her twice a week. We never talked about her inevitable death. But on my bike on the way home tears would run down my face before I knew they were there.
The people who coped the best with the illness and pain they saw were either unapologetic aethiests, pragmatists with a you take what youre given approach to life, or those lucky few who were buoyed up a certain spirituality and faith in Gods love. Anything else meant the inevitable struggle of questioning the glaring inequities in the lives we lead and how this could be so.
Entering the building at 815 each morning was like going to another world, with its very distinct language, customs and rules. You didnt have to be a sociologist to witness the rigid hierarchy with its unsubtle gender and race preferences. To be blunt the nearer the job was to cleaning up shit (figurative and real) the more likely the employee would be a Black and female. And no surprises, the conceited and knife hungry surgeons were, in the main, White and male. From the patients, to the porters, the cleaners to the consultants, the nurses, the health care assistants, the canteen staff, the physios, the OTs, the ward sisters everyone had a uniform indicating clearly not only their job but also showing their place in the social pecking order. It was the closest thing to being in the army that I could imagine.
But before I paint the grimmest picture imaginable let me end on this note. I met some of the most wonderful, exceptional people whilst I was there. A young cancer patient who could not walk when we met and worked with her her absolute devotion to life meant that when I saw her again 6 months later she smiled. Its the last day with my sticks she said and skipped down the hall away from me. And so many, so very many people I worked with, despite the bad hours, the MRSA, the grime, the appalling pay all loved, yes loved their patients. I met people with huge hearts full of faith, love and compassion.
I met everything there, all human life and I also met myself. I will always be grateful for the lessons I learnt about what it is to human and what it is to believe and, despite everything, to keep the faith.