Becoming a Patient - kids, trauma and 1960's hospitals part one

> 30.06.2017

In May I was delighted to be invited to join a panel of speakers at the Manning Regional Art Gallery for a cross-disciplinary forum engaging with key issues running through their current exhibition, The Patient. The panel was chaired by Bec Dean, the exhibition’s curator. Two of the featured artists, John A Douglas and Eugenie Lee, led the forum discussion.

The Patient exhibition addresses the embodied experience of the artist as medical patient, and the medical patient as living subject in contemporary art. It explores the ways in which artists engage with powerful human experiences in the fields of health, biological science and medicine, contributing to discourse on the representation of illness, disease, care, individual agency and what it is to be human.

Becoming a Patient - Part One

There are many pathways to becoming a patient, I began. Trauma was mine. My journey started when I was eleven.

My manuscript ‘All Stations to Waterfall’ tells part of my story, from the 1960s through to the early 70s, beginning when I was jolted from the door of a train onto the tracks just past the platforms at Sutherland Station in Sydney. Today I’d like to use abridged readings, from early pages of my manuscript, to give you a child’s eye view of hospital life fifty years ago.

Back then, things were different: registered nurses, or sisters, wore starched head gear like the Flying Nun; nurses lived onsite and trained in the wards; and, patients knew their place.

Who was I in 1968? I was happiest surrounded by friends, full of fantastic ideas for my future and never sat still. Dad used to say I had ants in my pants. I was in an opportunity class in my final year of primary school and a sports captain. I played competition netball and was a qualified umpire, loved hiking and riding my bike. I was to be Nanki Poo in the end of year production of The Mikado (I wasn’t a soprano). I was eager to start high school and felt like nothing could stop me.

My family was ordinary; we lived in a post-war fibro house in Loftus in Sydney’s southern suburbs, I had two older siblings and one younger, and my parents both worked full-time. 

Being a Kid in an Adult Ward

I was admitted to an adult ward; I don’t know why. There was one hour visiting a day, except, on weekends and Wednesdays, there was another hour in the afternoon. No exceptions. Not even for an eleven year old and her parents.

I felt abandoned.

On the morning after the accident, when the back of my bed was raised for breakfast, I looked at my injured foot for the first time. I was alone, and my foot should have been on restricted viewing for a child:

The foot’s like raw meat, a leg of lamb with black toes sticking out. There’s no skin from above the ankle to the toes.

I feel nothing. That’s not right, I’m curious; I want to explore it. Things are more serious than I thought last night when Mum told me they saved it. What I’m looking at doesn’t seem like a saved foot at all, except for still being attached to the end of my leg and having some strange toes. At least, when I count them, they’re all there.

This cannot be my foot. It cannot be mine. It isn’t mine.
It and me.
The Foot and Me.

Trauma can be compounded so easily, or so negligently. 

The Surgeon and Prognosis

After breakfast, still alone, I met my surgeon who explained everything to me. I remembered it, word for word, when I wrote the manuscript. But, way back then, I absorbed nothing. As I listened to him, I was busy assuring myself I’d be fine, back at school in two weeks—because then the exams would be over—and running around. This is what he told me:

The foot was crushed and degloved when it went into the turning wheel of the train. He explains degloving; the skin was peeled off the foot like a glove comes off a hand. The sole of the foot, muscles and tendons below the ankle were lost. Dr C says the heel is gone, sheared off by the wheel, and the bones across the middle were crushed, but the good thing is my ankle isn’t broken.

Then he said:
“Fay, there could be complications. It might not go as smoothly as we all hope. It still might get gangrene. If it does, I will have no choice, I’ll have to take you straight to theatre and remove the foot.”
“When will I be able to walk on it again?” I ask in response.
“We don’t know yet,” he replies. When he leaves I address the foot directly for the first time: “Okay Foot, if you promise not to get gangrene, I promise to look after you.”

Now, I understand the pledge I made to my foot, less than twenty four hours after the accident, made me hold onto it for over four decades: I'd made a vow, I couldn’t recant.

The Sister in Charge

If you were a nurse or patient fifty or more years ago, there’s a chance you’ll remember a Sister Lamington. This description of our first meeting may trigger a memory, or two:

She is short, looks one hundred years old and is like a stick figure. Skin so tight on her face it might crack if she smiles, but she doesn’t try to. Hair coils out of her scalp in violet curls, permed in place.

She glances at me, picks up the chart at the end of my bed, and asks the nurse, “How is the foot today?” I immediately christen her Sister Lamington. It’s not her real name, but sounds just like it.

When writing ‘All Stations …’ I mentioned Sister Lamington (I can’t remember her real name) at our neighbour’s farm over Christmas drinks, and someone said ‘I know her, she was there when I trained!’ She shuddered, her face said it all.

I coped with Sister Lamington by collecting used syringes and recycling them:

I see the syringe from my last injection and pick it up. Then I reach for my orange and rest it on the blue cotton bedspread covering my lap, lift my glass of water, insert the needle in the glass and draw fluid into the barrel. The best way to fill some idle time in the morning. I have a sacrificial orange, my Lamington Orange, named after my bete noir with her sharp eyes and bitter tongue.

When the barrel is loaded, I pick up the orange and stick the needle into the skin. Feeling the resistance of the rind, I know as soon as I reach the flesh—the needle slides up to the hub and a citrus aroma escapes. Then I push the plunger, forcing water into the heart of the orange. And breathe. Over and over. Revenge. Ready for the new onslaught today.

I had to be creative to survive living on Women's Surgical Ward, Level 4, alone with a strange new foot and an unknowable future.
In part two of Becoming a Patient I draw on excerpts of ‘All Stations…’ exploring how I: survived rules and regulations with rebellious zeal; coped with captivity and contemplated escape; questioned who I was; and, germinated seeds of self-belief and determination.

If you would like more information about The Patient exhibition at the Manning Regional Art Gallery please click here. The exhibition runs until Saturday 17 July 2017.